LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 1, 2020) — From imposed lockdowns to travel bans — since early this year, countries, states and cities have used mandates and regulations as part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Now, popular destinations are in the process of reopening in phases. And with restrictions lifting, many are anxious to take a vacation.
But you may be wondering — is it safe to travel?
With that question in mind, UKNow enlisted the expertise of Jason Hope. As director of international health, safety and security at the University of Kentucky, he manages the health and safety aspects of international education. Additionally, Hope works closely with all students petitioning to travel for UK purposes to higher-risk destinations.
“Each of us has a responsibility to our family, friends and the UK community to make choices that are going to keep us healthy and successful in the fall semester,” he said. “I hope years from now, we can look back and be proud of how we rose to the occasion.”
In the Q&A session below, Hope stresses the importance of knowing the risks before planning a getaway.
UKNow: With many things slowly reopening, what is your message to members of the UK community who are thinking about traveling?
Hope: This is a difficult question to answer, because the pandemic is affecting different parts of the U.S., and different parts of the world, in such unequal ways. In general, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. However, some places are certainly “safer” than others in terms of your risk of contracting the disease, and some reasons for travel are better than others.
My general advice at this point would be that you should only travel for essential reasons, and only to places where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is relatively low. This is definitely not the time to be taking a vacation or hanging out in bars and restaurants in a state where the virus is spreading — even if the state government has allowed them to reopen.
COVID-19 is circulating in every U.S. state at this point, so before traveling I would ask myself if the trip I’m about to take is worth possibly contracting the disease, possibly giving it to someone who could suffer from it or possibly bringing it back to campus with me. If the answer to any of those questions is no, it might be better to hold off.
And don’t forget — you should never travel if you are feeling sick.
UKNow: What research should people do before traveling? For example, how can I find out if my destination has a high number of cases?
Hope: If you’re planning to travel within the U.S., one thing you should do is take a close look at the COVID-19 test positivity rate at your destination. This number tells you what percentage of all the COVID-19 tests have come back positive. If the number is high, that’s a good indication that the disease is widespread in the community. Kentucky has been hovering around a 5% positivity rate, but other states like Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas have rates that exceed 20%. In other words, your chances of contracting COVID-19 in some other states is significantly higher than it is here in Kentucky. Johns Hopkins University keeps track of this data at this link, so I would encourage you to take a close look at it before finalizing your travel plans.
You should also take a close look at information the CDC (Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention) is providing for travelers. They give recommendations for both domestic and international travel, and they even have specific information based on the way you’ll be traveling (e.g., by car, by plane, etc.).
UKNow: What do I need to know about government-mandated travel restrictions?
Hope: In late July, Gov. Beshear issued a travel advisory stating that any person who had traveled to a state with a positivity rate of 15% or higher should self-isolate for 14 days upon return. Although Kentucky’s travel guidance is not the “law,” other states are taking restrictive measures. In New York, for example, you can actually be fined if you do not comply with their state government travel restrictions (which include travelers from Kentucky). The main thing to remember is that each state has its own rules and regulations about travelers, and you need to be sure you understand the landscape at your destination.
This gets even trickier for international travel. Very few countries are allowing U.S. citizens to enter at this point, but those that are generally require a negative COVID-19 test or some period of quarantine upon arrival. Not following these rules could result in serious consequences, even for tourists. And if you do choose to go abroad, you should keep in mind that countries can institute quarantine requirements, close their borders or otherwise limit mobility at any time and without advance notice.
UKNow: Traveling to visit family and friends sounds harmless — can a short trip really increase my chances of getting and spreading COVID-19?
Hope: Yes, it can. Staying put is the best way to protect yourself and others from infection. And I think it’s important to remember that even if you aren’t feeling sick, you could still carry the virus to family or friends who may be at higher risk of complications. That is one of the difficult things about this pandemic — there is a perception that young people are less “at risk,” or that they’ll “be fine” if they contract the disease. Aside from the fact that many young people do in fact suffer severe illness, we have to consider, even if they don’t get very sick, they may unknowingly spread the disease to the communities they are visiting. We all have a responsibility to do what we can to protect the most vulnerable right now, and if we can do that by skipping a non-essential trip, that is the sort of sacrifice that makes sense to me.
UKNow: If I have to travel for personal reasons, what steps should I take to help reduce the chance of getting sick or getting someone else sick?
Hope: In general, you should follow the guidelines the CDC has posted about how to protect yourself and others. These include frequent handwashing, practicing physical distancing, wearing a mask, covering coughs and sneezes and monitoring your health. Trips are often a time that we let our guard down and relax a bit, even if they are just short ones to see family or friends. But during the pandemic, any trip should be a time to take increased precautions and be especially alert to the steps you need to take to keep yourself and others safe.
UKNow: If I have recently traveled, what should I do upon returning to campus?
Hope: Remember that if you contracted COVID-19 during your trip, you may not become symptomatic for up to 14 days after you return home, so this is a period in which you should take special precautions. In addition to wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing and frequently washing your hands, you may want to take additional steps if you’ve been in an area that is experiencing high levels of COVID-19 spread, if you’ve gone to a large social gathering or if you’ve been in a crowd. In those situations, you should also consider staying home as much as possible, avoid being around people that are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and consider getting tested. Completing your daily 4.0 and the UK screening is also very important during this time.
Of course, if you begin to experience symptoms or feel unwell, you should stay home and consult with your doctor. And if you receive guidance to self-quarantine from any health care professional or public health official, you should do so.
UKNow: When it comes to healthy behaviors, why is it important for the UK community to remain vigilant on and off campus?
Hope: When the pandemic first began, I remember Gov. Beshear coming on every day to give his update and saying, “We will get through this — we will get through this together.” And he was right. This pandemic is a challenge that we have to tackle together — as a community. There has never been another period in our lives where our individual choices — where we travel, where we eat, what we do in our free time — have had the potential to impact others as significantly as what we’re experiencing right now. Each of us has a responsibility to our family, friends and the UK community to make choices that are going to keep us healthy.