No, it's not safe to travel*
Please stay home unless you have one of these
It's not safe to travel.
The latest COVID-19 variant is raging through the United States. As I write this, omicron accounts for 90 percent of New York's new infections. Most projections suggest the number of new cases will mushroom any day now.
Something tells me these forecasts are conservative …
We've been here a time or two. Last October, before the first surge, I recommended that you stay home. Now I'm doing it again, with one exception. I'll get to that in just a second.
How vaccinated do you have to be?
We had a fascinating discussion about safety and travel on Friday. But I'd love to get your opinion. How vaccinated to you have to be to travel safely? Do you need a vaccine or should you have two shots and two boosters?
Why is it not safe to travel?
Travel has been risky ever since the pandemic outbreak. But there have been riskier times. The surge of late 2020. The delta surge in mid-2021.
This is one of those riskier times. Check out what happened in South Africa when omicron came to town:
I think that could be our future in the U.S. If it is, then every plane, train and hotel lobby will become a superspreader event waiting to happen. Do you really want to be traveling, especially if you’re susceptible to an infection?
Even Bill Gates is sounding the alarm, saying he canceled his travel plans because we could be "entering the worst part of the pandemic."
"I've canceled most of my holiday travel plans," he told his Twitter followers.
* But you can travel if …
Not everyone needs to stay home. If you have a booster shot, you're good to go. A third dose of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccine offers a "significant increase" in protection against the omicron variant, according to a Danish study published last week.
Some are taking it farther. Israel's Pandemic Expert Committee last week recommended a fourth dose of the Pfizer vaccine for people over 60, medics, and those with compromised immunity. They must be at least four months past their first booster shot. Israel was one of the first countries to begin offering its population booster shots. If others follow its lead, we may all soon need a fourth COVID shot.
So when people ask me if it's safe to travel, I tell them: no — unless you've had your booster shot.
(Interestingly, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom this week warned against trying to boost a population out of the pandemic, saying that developing countries need the vaccines more than countries that can afford to offer a second booster.)
On Thursday, I received an email from one of my readers with an urgent question. Her daughter had tested positive just two hours before they were scheduled to leave for a cruise. She was trying to call her airline to find out if she could get a refund for her daughter's ticket. It was a classic case of pre-departure panic.
Airlines generally offer credits, but no refunds, when you test positive for COVID. The information is readily available on the airline site. But taking an antigen test just two hours before departure is cutting it a little close. For an outbound international flight like hers, you could — and should — get a test 72 hours in advance. That will give you plenty of time to adjust your schedule.
But I get where this reader is coming from. Whenever I get ready to fly somewhere, I wonder if one of my boys or I will test positive, which would throw our entire schedule into chaos. I'm worried about getting into the UAE next week. The testing and contact tracing requirements are some of the strictest I've seen. But I'm even more concerned about what lies beyond that. My schedule takes me to Cape Town next.
When will it be safe to travel for everyone?
The most common question I get is: When will it finally be safe for everyone to travel? To answer that definitively, you need the gift of prophecy. I know this is the time of year when a lot of folks are looking into their crystal ball, but when have I ever followed the crowd?
There's some evidence that the omicron variant is the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Studies suggest the symptoms are milder and that it could be the last gasp. If that's true, then we might be weeks away from finally getting the "all-clear" once and for all. But I'll believe that when I see it.
I'd love to get your thoughts. How vaccinated is vaccinated enough? Or do vaccines even matter anymore? The comments are open.
About the art
For this piece, artist Dustin Elliott yearned to display the dazed and confused feeling of vaccinated travelers as they lined up at the airport, train station and hotel during the holidays. "Quality air travel is only possible with our newest and finest medicines," he adds, "which we eagerly consume."