Dr. David Battinelli, vice president and chief medical officer at Northwell Health, gives his advice on coronavirus testing and the risk of traveling for the holidays. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The guidelines are clear: Stay home and don't travel during the holiday season.

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention down to state and local officials, public health experts agree that postponing or canceling trips, both domestically and internationally, is the safest way to protect yourself from COVID-19.

But even as coronavirus cases escalate across the region, many Long Islanders remain eager to gather and hit the road, skies and rails.

And in a shift from the pandemic's early days, many are taking COVID-19 tests not because they feel ill or were exposed to the virus but as a preventive measure so they can see friends and family, while still ostensibly complying with health guidelines.

It's a risky strategy — and one that medical experts contend is fraught with potential dangers both for those relying on the test and the people they visit.

Dr. Mark Jarrett, deputy chief medical officer and chief quality officer at Northwell Health, said too many people think they're protected from the virus because of a single negative COVID test.

But results are only a snapshot in time and may not detect people in the early stages of the illness. They also provide no safeguards for the days after the test is taken, including during the critical travel period.

"It's manageable if you follow all those rules," Jarrett said. "But we are going to have vaccines very soon. We see a light at the end of the tunnel. So it's better to miss a holiday and do it by Zoom than have family members get ill and feel very guilty that you hurt your family."

Even with testing, medical experts recommend that travel be limited to individuals who are symptom-free, have been carefully masking and have no known COVID-19 exposure. And face coverings, social distancing and frequent hand washing should still be relied upon, even with a negative test, experts say.

"If people rely upon a negative test and not practice appropriate COVID prevention, it's going to lead to an increase in cases, not a decrease in cases," said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of medicine and infectious disease at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside.

Since mid-November, lines for COVID tests outside urgent care facilities and at county and state-run drive-thru sites have more than doubled as Long Islanders seek ways to safely visit family members outside of their immediate cohort.

Dr. Daniel Griffin, chief of infectious disease at ProHEALTH, which has 24 urgent care sites on Long Island and New York City, said testing is an excellent way of letting infected people know they shouldn't be going anywhere.

"We are now seeing thousands of Long Islanders using COVID tests as a way to get checked before visiting friends and family during the holidays," Griffin said. "Our testing is picking up multiple individuals every day right before they would have gone and potentially infected their loved ones."

Five days before Thanksgiving, political consultant Michael Kaplan drove from his home in Washington, D.C., to visit family, including his 92-year-old grandfather, in Massapequa and Freeport. Kaplan said he took a COVID test four days before the trip and immediately upon his arrival, with both results coming back negative.

"If you are going to travel for the holidays, I think that is probably as good as you are going to get," said Kaplan, who wore a mask during his interactions with vulnerable family members. "Minimizing your interaction with as many folks as possible and making sure you are getting tested and not being irresponsible."

But Glatt said healthy individuals who are getting tested as a means for travel are overloading the testing system, potentially slowing down or preventing care for individuals who have a more pressing need for a COVID test.

"Inappropriate usage of testing is potentially dangerous," he said. "People should get tested when they have symptoms. People should get tested when they have exposure to someone with known COVID or to meet regulatory requirements."

Nationally, testing protocols vary with the state.

In New York, for example, travelers must have proof they tested negative upon arrival and then quarantine for three days. They would then take a test on the fourth day and be released from quarantine if they are negative. Travelers who are out of state for less than 24 hours do not need a test before their departure or to quarantine upon arrival in New York but must take a test within four days.

The guidelines, which went into effect last month, exempt essential workers and travel to states contiguous to New York including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Many airlines now require travelers to stipulate if they have tested positive for the virus or if they've been in contact with someone carrying the virus. Internationally, more than 120 countries require proof of a negative COVID test for entry — generally within 72 hours of the flight.

Some local airports are now providing rapid tests to passengers before boarding select flights. JetBlue's Terminal 5 at Kennedy Airport and LaGuardia Airport's Terminal B garage each offer free testing on-site.

Some popular destinations, including Hawaii, the Caribbean and Washington, D.C., allow individuals who can show proof that they tested negative for the virus to skip mandatory 14-day quarantines.

JetBlue also distributes a test kit for passengers to keep until they are within 72 hours of their return to New York. They would then self-administer and mail in the sample to satisfy the state’s prearrival testing requirement. Results will be provided within 48 hours.

Neither Amtrak nor Greyhound requires a negative test to board trains or buses, but they do require masks and have enhanced cleaning protocols.

With the virus exploding to record levels nationwide — the United States reported nearly 2,900 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday, the most for any one day during the pandemic — the CDC says travel is not worth the risk.

"The reality is that December, January and February are going to be rough times," CDC Director Robert Redfield said earlier this week. "I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation."

Megen Katz, 39, of West Babylon, said she took two COVID tests in less than a week last month after her mother, who was sneezing and coughing, "demanded" she get tested so the two could celebrate Thanksgiving together. Both tests came back negative.

Katz said she’ll visit her mother again during the upcoming holidays but acknowledged that the virus can strike at any time.

"I have anxiety over it," she said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said travel is just not worth the risk.

"Unless there’s a really, really crucial reason, don’t travel," he said. "It’s just going to only add more exposure to this disease, more chance that you might get it, your family might get it, it might be brought back here inadvertently."

With Antonio Planas

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