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My grandmother is 94 years old. She’ll be 95 in November, assuming she makes it that long. At her age, the common cold could cut a long life short with relative ease, but since March my family has been most concerned about her susceptibility to COVID-19. So far in the pandemic, people age 85 or older have accounted for roughly 33 percent of all novel coronavirus deaths in this country. Many of those fatalities have occurred in long-term care facilities. Fortunately for my Mama (pronounced maw-maw), she lives in a basement apartment in my parents’ house in metro Atlanta. That means that although she lives in Georgia, where nursing home visits are currently banned, I could conceivably visit her. Being pragmatic about her time left on this Earth regardless of COVID-19, it’s something I very much would like to do. I also very much would like to not kill her.
In a state where more than 50 percent of residents are from somewhere else, this conundrum is not uncommon. With reality setting in that COVID-19 is going to be a lurking menace in our lives for a long, long time, many of us are starting to ponder how we might begin to live with—and not fully hide from—the disease. For those Coloradans who, like me, don’t have a blood relative within 1,400 miles, the first question often is this: Can I travel to see my family?
The answer to that query varies greatly depending on whom you ask. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, recently said he won’t be boarding a plane during the pandemic because his age is a significant risk factor. The first sentence on the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment’s website declares unequivocally that travel can increase your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an entire page dedicated to “Considerations for Travelers—Coronavirus in the U.S.” that states, in bold lettering, “staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.” That is, of course, all true. There’s a reason we’ve all been cooped up in our homes since mid-March. It’s also true, though, that we can’t stay quarantined forever and never see our parents or grandparents or siblings again.
In search of what I might call a more humanistic view on air travel in the time of COVID-19, I reached out to an unlikely source: an infectious disease specialist. Dr. Michelle Barron is the medical director of infection control and prevention at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. Talking with Barron about the risks of contracting and spreading COVID-19 while traveling was a little like talking to Alex Honnold about the perils of rock climbing. That is to say, after 18 years of working with infectious diseases, Barron accepts that no matter how prepared we are, no matter how careful we try to be, there is no way to eliminate risk. She also understands that sometimes the benefit of travel outweighs the risk.
When I outline my situation for Barron, she is quick to say I’m not alone. “I get this question at least once a week,” the doctor says. “It’s a big deal. You want to do all the right things. The should I’s will drive you crazy.” Instead of second-guessing yourself into an anxious tizzy, Barron suggests doing a basic risk assessment. First, she says, evaluate your own health situation. “If you have asthma or diabetes or if you’re over 60,” she says, “your risk of getting very sick is higher. You might not be a great candidate to travel.” But if your age and health don’t elevate your risk, then move on to analyze the health of your family members. If you’re going to see multiple relatives, she explains, there inevitably will be people with risk factors. “Your parents might be over 60 and your grandparents might be elderly,” Barron says. “That doesn’t mean you can’t visit. You just have to balance that with how important it is to see them.”
This, of course, is where the human element comes into play—and where I’m grateful for Barron’s relative liberalness. Not only does she seem to get my desire to see my family, she offers a relevant personal anecdote. Recently, she and her family decided they needed to visit her 87-year-old father-in-law. “He has comorbidities that make him susceptible to COVID-19,” she says, “but he’d been alone for too long and caring for his mental health was worth the risk.”
Once you’ve decided traveling is worth the risk (and you’ve done your homework on which states have quarantine mandates), then Barron suggests focusing on logistics. Testing before you fly simply isn’t practical or valuable for asymptomatic individuals, she says, so don’t waste your time. However, you and your family should agree to a mutual, no-exceptions quarantine for a week before your arrival. “No grocery store, no unusual interacting,” she says. “Just stay home.” With an average incubation time of roughly five days, this should ensure enough time for symptoms to show up in anyone who might be sick. If symptoms arise in anyone, Barron says, cancel your plans. No excuses.
If not, the remaining risk is negotiating the airport and airplane in the safest way possible. Many experts, including Barron, say that navigating airports is actually more problematic than sitting on planes, which have air filtration systems akin to those in hospitals. Still, Barron recommends the following: booking on an airline that is leaving middle seats open; trying to stay as far away from people as possible, especially in crowded TSA line and gate areas; always wearing a mask; using hand sanitizer obsessively; cleaning your seat and tray table on the plane with disinfecting wipes; and bringing your own snacks and water on board. In other words, being compulsive and neurotic for a few hours is a good way to go.
Once you’re with your family, Barron suggests simply enjoying it. If everyone followed the rules and did their best, she says, there’s no upside to feeling nervous. When I ask if I can hug my Mama, Barron says yes—but with a caveat. “There’s no reason to travel that far and not touch your family members,” she says, “but if someone is really high risk, wear a mask and then go ahead and give Grandma that hug.”