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Beware of potential pandemic-era travel risks, experts say

Health and travel experts discuss going away during the pandemic, what we’ve learned so far and how can we apply these lessons safely to enjoy festive times. On the panel: Bruce Polsky, MD, MACP, FIDSA Professor and Chairman, Department of Medicine NYU Long Island School of Medicine and NYU Langone Hospital – Long Island; and Anne Lischwe, Travel Sales Manager, NY & NJ AAA Northeast.

What's worse than being Steve Martin stuck in a cross-country holiday trek with John Candy? When it comes to planes, trains and automobiles in the age of COVID-19, it's the uncertainties about how to remain safe and protected — and deciding if the risk of not staying home alone really is worth the reward.

Speaking on the latest NewsdayLive webinar, titled "Planes, Trains & COVID-19: Can I Travel Safely for the Holidays?" experts said that though the thought of getting out and going somewhere for the holiday season might be delightful, the possibilities, for now at least, remain potentially frightful.

Though frontline workers and the most-vulnerable this week began receiving the new coronavirus vaccine, recipients remain few and far between. And, the experts agreed, two-plus weeks past the Thanksgiving holiday both positive cases and hospitalizations are on the rise — a trend that looms ominous for the 2020 Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and New Year's seasons.

"People want to break out," said Dr. Bruce Polsky, professor and chairman of the department of medicine at New York University Long Island School of Medicine and NYU Langone Hospital Long Island. "That's a totally understandable feeling. But I think we're going to have to hunker down a little longer."

In fact, Polsky said, he believes we're now looking toward the end of 2021 before there's a real comfort level about crowds and crowded travel areas like airport terminals, train stations, planes, trains, hotels and resort areas.

And AAA Auto Club Northeast travel sales manager Anne Lischwe said that prospect has many folks "dreaming ahead" to a future "post-vaccine" world, considering so-called "bucket list" treks to far-off lands like Australia, New Zealand, Asia and the South Pacific — mostly come late-2021 or even 2022.

"Normally," Lischwe said, "I would be promoting travel …Right now, that's not the case."

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In the movie, the Steve Martin character, Neal Page, merely found the John Candy character, Del Griffith, a constant annoyance.

The current real-life world of planes, trains, automobiles, hotels, motels and resorts remains a far-more daunting proposition.

Many nations have travel restrictions, especially for U.S. citizens, in place. And airline, public transit, hotel and resort protocols in the U.S. and abroad are changing on a near-daily basis in some cases, the experts said. Remember when airlines announced empty middle seats to promote social distancing? Now, many are booking every seat they can. Cruise ships? Who knows? Hotel and motel cleaning procedures? Lischwe and Polsky agreed they're probably as clean — or, cleaner — than they've ever been.

Still no medical expert can guarantee any of it is 100% safe.

The best bet, the experts said? Don't travel unless it's absolutely necessary. And if you choose to, ask a lot of questions about safety requirements, safety protocols, safety procedures. How often are rooms cleaned with disinfectants? Are rooms left unoccupied for a time period between guests and cleanings — and, for how long? Are middle seats on planes and trains occupied or slated to remain empty? What are mask requirements, PPE requirements?

What is the infection rate for the area you might plan to travel to?

Is it a hot spot?

Some communities across the United States, the experts agreed, remain underserved when it comes to COVID-19. That said, anyone could be unwittingly exposed.

Those deciding to travel should make certain they know their options regarding cancellations and changes.

Asked by a webinar viewer if it was safe to travel with potential morbidity risks — or better to just stay home — Polsky said: "Being Debbie Downer is never popular in a family and neither is throwing a wet blanket on plans, but I don't think it's advisable … This is not the time.

"We've come this far," Polsky said. "Wouldn't it be terrible to take a risk right now that could have a bad outcome."

For more information on travel requirements, protocols and advice, visit www.CDC.gov, www.AAA.com and www.who.int.

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