The most dangerous places to travel this spring

EXCLUSIVE: New forecast projects COVID-19 risk by county

If those crazy pictures of Miami Beach during spring break aren't enough to give you second thoughts about spring break, maybe this will: I have an exclusive list of places in the United States where the risk of infection is rising.

The projections come from Kinsa, a public health company that predicts COVID-19 outbreaks ten days before they happen. Kinsa generates its forecast from a network of more than two million smart thermometers and accompanying mobile applications, as well as publicly available COVID-19 cases.

The results are surprising. They reveal places that you assume are safe are actually not -- and vice versa. I also asked Kinsa to issue a projection at the county level, which is revealing. Put together, the COVID-19 forecast suggests that the blanket travel ban I recommended last Thanksgiving may need to be revised.

Spring break destinations are at risk

The most dangerous places are not where you'd expect. Let's start with the states where you're most at risk of getting infected in the next ten days.

New Jersey tops the list, with the needle almost in the red zone. It's followed by Rhode Island, Michigan, New York and Delaware. The Northeast is well represented, even though it's far from the Sunbelt.

That's somewhat counterintuitive, at least if you're a traveler. You'd assume states like California, Texas and Florida would top the list. But spring break isn't the only factor leading to higher infection and risk levels. 

"We aren’t able to determine why there is COVID case growth," Kinsa spokeswoman Nita Nehru told me. "Only that data shows rising illness."

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Which states are safer? 

The list of safer states -- at least in terms of a future surge in COVID cases -- is also a head-scratcher. Arizona, California and Hawaii, which are traditional spring break hotspots, rank as safe. And if you want extra safe, visit Oklahoma. It rates as the safest state.

"Hawaii may be [safer] due to the strict testing and quarantine measures the state has implemented for incoming travelers," says Nehru. "You must either test negative 72 hours prior to departure and upon arrival, or you must quarantine for 14 days." 

The safest and most dangerous places by county

But what about the safest counties? I asked Kinsa to drill down to that level, and the results are fascinating.

Here are the safest places.

Sparsely populated Union County in New Mexico is the safest place to be if you're worried about COVID-19. But let's be honest. No one goes to the northeasternmost county in New Mexico for spring break. Same for the other places; they're zeros for good reason. No offense to these destinations -- I'm sure they're nice places to visit.

The dangerous counties are there for a reason, too. Monmouth County, N.J., and Rockland County, N.Y., are heavily populated suburban counties near major cities. Pitkin County, Colo., may not sound familiar unless you're a skier. That's where the famous Aspen ski resort is located, and it has the seventh-highest per capita income of any U.S. county.

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So … Miami for spring break?

I asked Kinsa if all this meant it was safe to visit Florida during spring break. The answer: not necessarily.

"Florida and other sunbelt destinations are in fact experiencing high levels of illness risk," Nehru told me. "Miami-Dade county, for example, is at an illness risk level of 65, which is considered high, due to the number of daily COVID cases per 100K population -- 40 daily new cases per 100K." 

It's just that other places are more dangerous, she adds.

"Parts of New Jersey, New York are experiencing even higher levels of COVID-19 case rates --  61 new cases per 100K population," she says.

In other words, we don't really know why some parts of the country are more dangerous than others. But what we can say is that you should consider avoiding the more infectious ones like -- oh, I probably shouldn't say this --  the plague.

This is much better than before

The last time I checked in with Kinsa, the entire country was a red zone. It was Thanksgiving, and no matter which expert you talked to, the advice was the same: Stay home!

Now, with COVID-19 beginning to fade and vaccinations increasing, people are increasingly divided over whether or not to travel. The Centers for Disease Control still recommends avoiding nonessential travel. But with 13 percent of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, more people are beginning to question that advice -- and to start traveling again.

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What should you do?

We're entering a period of high uncertainty when it comes to travel. Even though the CDC wants everyone to stay home, people are taking vacations. And even more people will travel as we head into the summer travel season. That means you'll have to review all the available information and make a decision for yourself. Should you wait to go somewhere until this summer? Or later this year?

A few months ago, I told you that you didn't have my permission to travel. But now, with vaccines being distributed and infection rates slowing, I'm thinking of revising that advice.

OK, over to you. What's your advice? Is it OK to travel now, or should people stay home and wait until the pandemic is over? The comments are open.

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