So You Traveled Over Thanksgiving. Here’s What to Do Now.

Judgment-free advice on how to act safely over the next two weeks

Photo: Phil Mosley/Unsplash

On Sunday night, air travel in the United States reached its highest peak since the pandemic began despite pleas from public health officials to avoid travel over the Thanksgiving holiday. An estimated 9.4 million Americans flew during the Thanksgiving travel window, according to CNN; another 48 million were expected to travel by car. There are many reasons people decided to travel despite the risks, including pandemic fatigue, loneliness, isolation, and desperation to see loved ones during an especially emotional time of year.

The high number of travelers this weekend prompted a fresh wave of warnings from experts straining to quell the spread of Covid-19. On Sunday, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx, MD, said that if you traveled this holiday, you “have to assume that you were exposed and you became infected and you really need to get tested in the next week.” In fact, experts are now urging heightened caution around others because the virus is spreading widely across the country, and people may be unaware they were exposed to it, even if they were very careful and don’t feel any symptoms. People can be asymptomatic and still infectious.

If you traveled this weekend, this may be jarring to hear, even if you did everything within your power to minimize the risks, like quarantining before you traveled, getting tested, avoiding air travel, or gathering outdoors. Abraar Karan, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and expert on emerging infectious diseases, says there are three key things people should do if they traveled this weekend.

“The first is that people should quarantine when they return,” he tells the Coronavirus Blog. “The reason is that we have high levels of viral transmission, and people will often not know that they have been exposed.” The best way to stop these transmission chains in their tracks is to strictly quarantine for at least a week to 10 days, he adds. And “if they have had a known exposure, then the two-week quarantine rule still applies.”

People who have been exposed to Covid-19 are asked to quarantine for 14 days because that’s the length of the coronavirus incubation period — the number of days between infection and onset of symptoms.

Second is that people must quarantine properly. This “does not mean walking around your apartment or your house as if things are normal,” says Karan. “It means staying in your room and avoiding contact with other people and wearing a mask anytime you need to leave that room. Keeping windows open and ventilation flowing is advisable, and having others in the house wearing masks is also advisable.”

Third, it’s important to get tested, but don’t take one single result as gospel. “A single negative test does not prove that you are safe,” says Karan. “I would recommend getting tested when you return and again within three to five days so that you are testing over a longer incubation period.” There are a number of reasons why a person may get a negative test result even if they are actually infected with Covid-19: It may be too early in the virus’s incubation period for the test to detect it, or the result may be a false negative. For these reasons, health experts recommend that “people layer prevention strategies for more effective results,” as my colleague Alexandra Sifferlin wrote previously on the Coronavirus Blog.

The U.S. had 13.5 million confirmed Covid-19 cases on Monday, marking a rise of 8% over the past two weeks. Any transmission that occurred over the holiday break may make it much worse, especially if people don’t take the necessary precautions when they return home from their travels. On Sunday, infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, MD, cautioned: “We might see a surge superimposed upon that surge that we’re already in.”

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