With summer in full swing and COVID-19 vaccinations being administered around the world, many are returning to their summer travel routines. In Lebanon, the epidemiological situation is overwhelmingly positive, with instances of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continuing to dwindle. While the virus is far from contained, metrics suggest it is circulating at lower levels and spreading in a slower, more-controlled fashion. Even test positivity, which was over 20 percent from mid-January to the end of March, has abated and is now under the World Health Organization’s recommended 5 percent threshold for reopening. With vaccination levels varying by country and many destinations still experiencing outbreaks, however, how does one plan for summer travel? If you’re thinking about visiting friends and family in Lebanon, or contemplating another overseas trip, consider this article to be your guide to traveling safely amidst a global pandemic. I spoke to the experts and brought together their advice on key travel-related questions so that you can take the steps you need to protect yourself and others during this tenuous time.
What do I need to think about before planning a trip?
Although the number of daily cases is stable or falling in many places of the world, there are still areas experiencing surges. “Consider the risk in the destination you will be traveling to,” says Mirvat Termos, a Lebanese Seattle-based public health professional and doctoral researcher who regularly provides science-based information and guidance on social media. Risk can also vary by mode of transportation and type of accommodation – riding in a car with members of your household is much different than riding in a crowded bus or train, for example, and staying at an Airbnb is safer than staying at a hotel with common areas for eating.
It is also crucial to check the rules and regulations of the destination to which you are traveling. Do you need to get tested in advance? What are the requirements for quarantine upon arrival? Do they differ for travelers presenting vaccination certificates? Is health insurance required for visitors? For the latest procedures for all incoming passengers to Lebanon, visit the Ministry of Public Health’s (MoPH) website or Middle East Airlines’ Travel Forms and Entry Requirements page.
What preventive measures can I take to reduce the risk of air travel?
If air travel is necessary for your trip, take flights with the fewest possible layovers and maintain a distance from others when feasible. Wearing a mask (properly, and at all times) and complying with other airline policies are important to protect yourself and those around you. If you remove your mask to eat, Dr. Fred Bteich, a Lebanese neurosurgery fellow in France, suggests “making sure the travelers next to you on both sides have finished eating themselves and have worn their masks again.” Ensure your mask fits tightly and, if possible, use a multilayer mask or a higher-protection respirator like an N95, KN95, or FFP2 for additional protection while you are in close proximity to others.
Although current evidence suggests the risk of COVID-19 transmission from surfaces is rare, cleaning your hands often with soap and water or sanitizer is good practice to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. While traveling, you touch an inordinate number of surfaces, including door handles, computer screens, papers, purchased goods, seats, and armrests. Pack alcohol-based hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to have them accessible throughout your trip.
What do I need to know if I am visiting older relatives or people considered high risk?
If everyone in your group is vaccinated, travelers can take comfort in knowing vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death associated with COVID-19. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, points out that “we’re still learning how long COVID-19 vaccines can protect people and how effective they are against new variants of the virus.”
If some or all people are unvaccinated, it is important to continue taking steps to protect yourself and others. This includes properly wearing masks, physical distancing, and ensuring good ventilation when indoors. Spend time outside, if possible, particularly if you’re sharing a meal. Quarantining for 5-7 days and getting tested after you’ve arrived at your destination can also be helpful before socializing with older adults or high-risk people, especially if you haven’t been vaccinated.
What factors should I consider before deciding on activities and events?
“People. Place. Time. Space.” This phrase, used by many health promoters early in the pandemic, sums up the four factors to think about in terms of activities and risks of COVID-19 transmission. Extended time in crowded spaces indoors with unvaccinated people outside your household would be considered higher risk than dining outdoors with vaccinated friends at a restaurant with distancing measures, for example. “Large gatherings and crowded events are discouraged particularly since they bring individuals from various households together, thus increasing the risk of exposure,” said Termos.
Dr. Vlad Chaddad, an international humanitarian health advisor, encourages people to keep in mind the number of people who are at risk. The bigger that number is, the smaller the gathering should be. Location also matters, as risk may be higher if you are in an area experiencing an outbreak. If visiting Lebanon, you should keep in mind that only about 6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, meaning individual and community-based protective measures are still imperative to slow the spread of COVID-19. “Remember what happened during Christmas and New Year’s in Lebanon? We can face the same surge, especially with the new variants of concern,” warns Dr. Chaddad. He’s witnessed firsthand the impact of the virus while providing at-home care for COVID-19 patients in the Beirut area.
What kind of precautions should I take to stay healthy while traveling?
As with any trip, make sure you pack your essential medications and other supplies like masks, sanitizers, and disinfectant wipes. Follow local rules and regulations and wear a mask for public, indoor activities regardless of your vaccination status. More specific guidance from CDC on when to wear masks can be found here.
Dr. Chaddad tells travelers to “not fall in the trap of taking any kind of preventive ‘medicine’. No antibiotic, anthelmintic, or anti-malaria medicine will work [for COVID-19].” Internews Lebanon’s rumor tracking project, Rooted in Trust, found misinformation about home remedies to prevent COVID-19 have run rampant across the country throughout the pandemic.
You can also support others in staying healthy by encouraging them to get vaccinated. In Lebanon, you can register for the vaccine online with IMPACT or by calling MoPH’s COVID-19 hotline at 1787. “Take care of your family members’ health,” says Dr. Bteich. “Many of them are old enough and don’t have access or don’t know how to use the internet. Book them an appointment to get vaccinated and limit your contact with them.”
What if I get COVID-19 while I’m there?
Don’t panic. If you’re staying at a hotel, ask the front desk to assist you in getting medical assistance, or ask your friends or family members for a physician or hospital you can contact for guidance and testing. Monitor your symptoms, limit your exposure to others for at least 10 days, and inform people you’ve recently had contact with that you have COVID-19. “Do not take steroids, antibiotics, or any sort of medication before consulting with a doctor,” says Dr. Bteich. Seek immediate medical attention if you are having trouble breathing, experiencing persistent pain or pressure in the chest, or feeling disoriented.
On the logistical side, you may need to adjust your return date to ensure your quarantine period is completed prior to travel. Furthermore, assess visa or work changes that may need to happen.
What steps should I take when returning home?
If you’re not vaccinated, “it’s best to quarantine for 5-7 days and get tested to ensure that you did not get infected at your travel destination,” says Termos. CDC also encourages travelers to follow all local recommendations or requirements after travel, which may include a quarantine period and/or testing. If you develop symptoms after traveling, limit contact with others and get tested.
While traveling may feel daunting, there are many steps you can take to protect yourself and others. A safe summer may help prevent a repeat of last fall and winter, where much of the world experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitals at or near full capacity. Glimmers of normalcy are showing thanks to the availability of vaccines. However, we must remain on guard not only for our own personal health and well-being, but also that of individuals and communities who have yet to gain access to the vaccine along with the regions still experiencing the deleterious effects of this novel virus.
Sara is a US-based public health professional with over 15 years of experience spanning government and non-profit agencies. From HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in South Africa to health education in a US county jail, her passion for health and activism has led her to work in diverse settings across the world. She provided support for the US response to Ebola and Zika and has worked extensively in positions related to infectious disease and social justice. She recently relocated from Beirut, where she provided consulting support for non-health actors in the COVID-19 response in Lebanon. Her current projects include data tracking and analysis on COVID-19 in Lebanon, supporting a fundraising initiative to help Lebanese students receive their diplomas, and advocating for the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. She obtained a Master of Public Health in Management & Policy from Oregon State University.