Wellness Wednesday: Staying safer during summer travel

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Black and white image of bicycles mounted on a car rack on a ferry.
A Madeline Island ferry loaded with vacationers, 2017. (courtesy Jay Gabler)
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Seasons are changing, right? People are seeking to shake off some pandemic fatigue; many are looking to take a break and get away, and some restrictions are loosening. Infectious disease experts say it's still important to take precautions while traveling to help reduce the impact of COVID-19.

I talked with an expert: Dr. Jill Foster, a professor of pediatrics in the University of Minnesota Medical School, and pediatric infectious diseases physician with M Health Fairview. It's always nice to meet another Jill.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: My first question is, what should people consider if they're thinking about getting away?

Jill Foster: Well, I think the first thing is to really think about getting vaccinated. I know there's a lot of people who are kind of waiting. But really the biggest thing you can do that puts the control in your hands rather than having to depend on what other people do is to go get the vaccine.

Even for folks who are getting vaccinated, let's say I'm going to get in my car and go over to Wisconsin or down to Iowa, hop on a train, hop on a plane: what are some other things that I should be considering when I'm leaving my town or my home to go to another place?

So the best thing you can do is when you're out in public, especially, is to put that mask on. The second thing is to kind of keep your distance. And then the third thing is, you know, to stay away from a crowd of people that you don't know. Avoid those crowds.

Yeah, it sounds like that common sense advice is still out there. We've grown accustomed to masking up, to social distancing, to avoiding large crowds. And the best thing to do is to go out and get vaccinated. Some people aren't going to wait, you know, there are folks who are going to book their travel. Is there some safety for unvaccinated people to travel since others have been vaccinated? I know that you said that you can't really depend on what other people are doing.

I think a little bit of it's a wash, because they think it is a little bit cheaper out there, because more people are vaccinated, and you're then depending on them to be less infectious, but there's new variants that are out there. And so the new variants are just this wild card that got put in: it's a lot more contagious than it appears, it appears to be causing more serious disease as well. So I look at it kind of like you're walking through a minefield. There's fewer mines out there, but the ones that are out there are no less deadly.

What are your recommendations to be just as safe as possible if folks are going to get on an airplane?

You know, I just traveled by plane and I wore my mask from start to finish. It was a fairly short plane ride, and I turned down the water and the cookie that they gave, because I needed to take my mask off then and you know, how good is that airplane cookie? I was glad that I did, because the person sitting in the row behind me was coughing the whole way. So you know, I felt a little bit safer that way. To be even safer, it's good to wear some eye protection. There's you know, things you can get online pretty easily that you don't have to get that whole front face shield, you can get something this covers your eyes...or even just put on, you know, you can get some glasses that are blank glasses.

What I was worried about was not necessarily the plane but going to the airport. I transferred at an airport where half the people have their masks on, you know, over their chin. And you know, you're blowing through that airport, they're blowing through the other side. There's all sorts of stuff in the air that's going right into your eyes and your breathing.

Yeah, I didn't even think about eye protection. That's a good recommendation. And I'm sure just like hand washing as much as possible and not touching one's face.

Yep, yep, exactly. You know, but I have a little hand sanitizer I put right on my key ring so that it's always close by.

But it sounds like you felt at least as comfortable as you possibly could traveling by plane.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, the airplanes themselves have a pretty good filtration system so that the air is constantly circulated. You know, the places you want to avoid is those places that you're just kind of sitting in dead air when people are breathing infectious particles out that are just kind of sitting right there for you to breathe in.

Now you mentioned just a little bit ago about variants. Are they a consideration in the months moving forward in regard to travel?

Yeah, I think the variants add a whole wild card into this, because the viruses are constantly finding ways to get around the stuff we're doing to avoid them. So the variants are becoming more and more common in our area, we're getting more and more of them here. The virus is constantly finding new ways to develop ways to be stronger. So if you're trying to plan travel for July, August...we just don't know what's going to be out there.

I like to apply that phrase to my five-year-old son, because he's the biggest wild card in my life. Since you work in pediatrics, I'm just kind of curious, as somebody who has a child: people are going to plan vacations. Is it best to leave the kids somewhere? I mean, obviously, where they're going to be supervised, but, you know, is it is it safe to bring the kids on the plane?

Well, you know, a lot of this is sort of what your tolerance for safety and risk is. So yes, to be totally safe, leave the kid at home with somebody who's going to supervise them. The other end is just say, you know, caution to the wind...but there's a lot of things in between.

The kids I worry about more are the older kids like the teens, because they're more free agents. They're gonna wander off, they're going to be people, teens in general are always testing their limits. So they're probably not going to put their mask on as soon as they're out of your sight, and they're gonna do stuff you don't know. The younger kids, you can supervise a little bit. Maybe this isn't the year to go to a crowded theme park where everybody's going to be right on top of each other. Instead go to a place where you can go camping, and then you're mostly outdoors and hiking and things like that. That are those are all healthier for you anyway.

I'm now going to refer to all the teens in my life as free agents. Thank you for that. But yeah, getting outdoor — and especially here in Minnesota. There are so many great state parks and recreation areas. My plan is to try to spend as much time outdoors, getting away to northern Minnesota or something like that.

Oh, yeah, me too. I have something planned for the end of July. But, you know, have a discussion with your kids. I've talked to a lot of folks about this and we're getting to the edge of the woods, but we're not out of the woods. In fact, we're going to go walking in the woods. So I think that it's talking about, you know, next year we'll do that dream trip. I think by next year, we're going to be in a whole different situation. So you know, it's, we're not gonna stay home this summer. But we're going to go do something that is in between, because we want to get out.


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Anna Weggel and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.


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