As Georgia enters coronavirus red zone, residents worry about holiday travel

With the holidays fast approaching and the COVID-19 pandemic showing new signs of spiking across the country, many Georgians face tough decisions about whether to visit their relatives and friends or stay home.

Dr. Henry Wu, the director of Emory University’s TravelWell Center, plans to virtually connect with his elderly parents this holiday season since they are considered high-risk should they become infected with COVID-19. 

Wu is among a host of public health experts and doctors who say they’re increasingly concerned that when holiday travel and cold weather keeps more people indoors the spread of COVID-19 cases will race across the country.

But family members separated since the spring by the virus are ready to reunite during the holidays. Health experts are offering advice to stay as safe as possible, starting with limiting personal interactions and quarantining two weeks before the trip.

People are encouraged to get tested for COVID before and after traveling and get their flu shots. 

“It’s a very personal decision, and everyone eventually has important reasons to travel,” Wu said. “The good news is, if you do need to, I think it can be done safely. On the other hand, for those of us who don’t need travel, if we can stay home, it will make things safer for everyone else.”

Public health experts advise people who plan to visit with family for the holidays to keep their gatherings small and local.  

A short road trip in a car is the safest option since people can pack snacks and keep their interactions with outsiders to a minimum, Wu said.

“Traveling to multiple households, especially when they’re from different locations from different states, can be riskier,” Wu said. “Whether or not you travel, remember that any situation where people are congregated in indoor settings, particularly without a mask can be risky.”

The pandemic and high unemployment are expected to lead to significantly fewer people hitting the roads and catching flights this Thanksgiving. AAA expects the single largest drop-off since the 2008 recession, with only 50 million Americans traveling for Thanksgiving this year, down from 55 million in 2019. 

That number will probably be lower as more people decide to stay home the closer it gets to the holidays. 

“The wait-and-see travel trend continues to impact final travel decisions, especially for the Thanksgiving holiday,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president at AAA Travel. “The decision to travel is a personal one. For those who are considering making a trip, the majority will go by car, which provides the flexibility to modify holiday travel plans up until the day of departure.”

According to travel website Hopper, 39% of people surveyed said they plan to travel during the holidays this year. About 21% said they’d avoid the traveling that they would do in a typical year. 

Count DeKalb County’s Marshall Flint among those who say he’ll travel a few hours to south Georgia this Thanksgiving for a small family gathering.

“We’re not trying to put anyone in harm’s way, so we’re going to make some extra plates to drop off for family members who can’t make it,” the 42-year-old said.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who travel wear their masks in public, practice social distancing and pack extra hand sanitizer and other supplies like disinfectants to wipe down surfaces.

The agency also asks travelers to plan ahead, so they know the local health regulations and find out what steps hotels, car rental companies, and other businesses are doing to limit the virus’s spread.

Many hotels and vacation rentals have taken extra precautions to keep rooms and common areas clean. However, lobbies and elevators pose the highest risk because so many people share the spaces, Wu said.

There is some good news for people flying since evidence suggests that the aircraft cabins are relatively safe because of good air filtration, Wu added.

“If you travel by air keep in mind that it’s not just the flight itself, but it’s every step of the trip that can contribute some risk, whether it’s transiting to the airport, security check-ins, the layover, really do not let your guard down,” Wu said.

Rising cases nationally, in Georgia

On Wednesday, the U.S. broke a daily record, with 136,000 reported new COVID-19 infections. Georgia is one of 42 states now designated in the coronavirus red zone by a Nov. 8 White House Coronavirus Task Force report.

New COVID-19 cases jumped about 4,500 last Tuesday as a new rapid antigen test contributed to the highest daily rate increase reported in months.

According to the White House task force report, Georgia is just below the national average of new cases, with more than 90% of counties considered to be moderate to high-risk areas.

Unlike previous outbreaks that were mostly regional, this latest one is much more widespread, which could mean fewer resources available to treat patients, said Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who keeps tabs on Georgia’s pandemic.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing in other parts of the country is exponential growth of their cases,” she said. “So that means that they’re basically doubling every time a new report is issued. That hasn’t happened for Georgia yet, but I think that the language from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and other indications, it’s not a question of if that’s going to happen to Georgia this winter but rather when.”

Schmidtke said following the CDC and other public health expert recommendations might help curb some of the viral spread during the holidays. 

People should avoid sharing utensils and should avoid sitting close to someone else outside of their immediate “pod” even if both people are wearing masks, she said.

“I might recommend you designate a person to be the turkey person that serves the turkey to everybody so only that one person is using the serving utensil,” Schmidtke said.