Living Well

Proceed with Caution

Story and photography by Tom Adkinson

COVID-19 vaccines are happening, but the pandemic is far from over. When can we finally indulge our wanderlust?

With apologies to William Shakespeare, “To go or not to go? That is the question.”

As crazy as it sounds, the expression mirrors Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” because both questions center on the specter of death.

The “D” word, that dark cloud hovering since March 2020, is what has kept us cooped up, constrained, and conscious about every human encounter. Americans started to feel the shackles loosen over the winter as vaccines slowly became available, but vaccines are not a release from indenture, according to medical professionals.

Puzzling about how to behave after getting vaccinated is a good problem to have, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Now is not the time to play amateur epidemiologist — not if you’re lucky enough to have escaped COVID-19 so far.

“Masking and social distancing remain important,” says Dr. Calvin Smith, assistant professor of internal medicine at Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, which is involved in the coronavirus vaccine development. “The linchpin to feeling free to travel is getting the vaccination level to 80 or 90 percent of the population. The optimist in me says that might be in late summer or this fall. “

Smith, who helped with onsite COVID-19 testing, explains that how we travel, with whom we travel, and where we travel are significant factors to weigh as 2021 progresses.

“Keep your travel in the confines of family and friends — people whose behavior you know — if you do travel. Going to a secluded beach is one thing. Going to a spring break beach is completely different,” he explains, adding that you must consider all aspects of being in public places.

“It’s not just about you,” he says. “It’s one thing if you are a healthy, robust person. What you don’t know is the health status of those around you. It’s too easy to be an asymptomatic spreader of the virus.”

Assuming we do return to a pre-pandemic normal, Smith says there is one change he wants to become permanent.

“I hope people will continue exercising good hand hygiene. This is good on many levels,” he says.

Dr. Gill Wright III, interim chief medical director for the Metro Nashville Department of Health, is similarly cautious about travel and just as serious about personal safety behavior (wearing of masks, social distancing, and hand washing).

“Think about remote destinations where you can be outdoors with people you know,” Wright says. “The riskiest thing you can do is to sit for a prolonged time (in an enclosed setting) while eating and drinking.”

Along with avoiding crowds, Wright also recommends researching COVID-19 data such as vaccination levels and hospitalization levels for places you want to visit.

“Also, look at your health insurance (to be sure you have coverage at your destination), and (consider) travel insurance,” Wright says, noting that even after vaccination, you aren’t totally in the clear.

“Yes, you have 95 percent protection after your second dose (of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines), but that still leaves you 5 percent exposure. Masking and maintaining social distancing will remain important even into late 2021,” he predicts.

Travel agent Charlie Funk, CEO of Just Cruisin’ Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and a columnist for trade publication Travel Weekly, watched the cruise industry implode in 2020. He carefully studies indicators for a return to sailings.

“We’re ice skating on the edge of a razor blade right now,” Funk says. “Even though COVID-19 may fade into the rearview mirror, the viability of travel providers is in jeopardy. There is a massive pent-up demand to travel. My agency has huge bookings, but they are in 2022 and 2023.”

A survey from Global Rescue, a travel risk and crisis response provider, verified that demand. Seventy percent of respondents said they plan to take an overnight/multi-day domestic trip greater than 100 miles from home by this June.

Funk described the quandary people are in about whether to travel. They want the freedom they haven’t had for more than a year, but they remain conflicted.

“What will finally motivate cruise clients? There’s an intersection of perceived value — label that greed or landing a bargain — and fear. When those lines cross, people will hit the road,” he says.

Physicians Smith and Wright have their own travel dreams, and both hinge on mass vaccinations. Smith looks toward October for Morehouse College’s homecoming in Atlanta and to eating well in New Orleans again. Smith wants to go farther — the Galapagos Islands this year and the Maldives in 2022.

All three see one route to mobility, and that starts with rolling up your sleeve while continuing to wear a mask and keeping six feet away from people who don’t live with you.

Travel Tips

Because your own vaccination is not a get-out-of-jail card, remember these advisories:

General vaccination levels must reach 80-90 percent for nationwide success.

Continue masking, social distancing, and hand washing.

Travel with people whose health behaviors you know and are vaccinated.

Choose destinations carefully. Avoid crowds.

Understand your own health insurance, what it covers and where.

Get travel insurance to avoid losing your travel investment.

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