The Dos and Don’ts of Hot Vax Summer

A vaccinated American’s guide to traveling this summer

A suitcase with four stickers. One features a syringe, one is a U.S. flag, one says "Vaccinated," and another says "COVID Free."
Getty; The Atlantic

If your wanderlust is coming on extra strong this summer, you may be wondering what to do with it. Being vaccinated may feel like a superpower, but what exactly is safe—or not?

The CDC suggests, for example, that this may be the summer for road-tripping by RV. “If traveling in a RV, you may have to stop less often for food or bathroom breaks, but you could still be in close contact with others while staying at RV parks overnight and while getting gas and supplies,” the agency advises in its travel tips for families with unvaccinated children. For long distances, RVs are more to the CDC’s liking than trains, buses, cruise ships, or river boats.

But if your wanderlust is coming on extra strong and you don’t have $40,000 to drop on a Winnebago, you might have some questions about those trains and buses (if not the river boats). Fewer state and federal rules govern travel within the United States this summer than last, but that freedom—along with the differing recommendations for people with differing vaccination statuses, and scary new coronavirus variants that spread more quickly—can still make assessing the risk involved in driving to a wedding or flying to see Grandpa quite tricky.

To help you decide on the best travel plan for you and your family, here are answers to five summer-vacation questions that go beyond the CDC’s tips. They are not exhaustive, but I hope that they will provide you with a framework for nuanced conversations about how dangerous a particular itinerary really is, and how much of that danger you’re willing to tolerate.

1. Are states with low vaccination rates off-limits?

About 45 percent of all Americans are fully vaccinated, but that sweeping number belies a lot of local differences. The percentage of adult Vermonters who are fully vaccinated (75 percent) is almost exactly double that of adult Mississippians (38 percent). Things are even more disparate on the county level: In McKinley County, New Mexico, which includes part of the Pueblo of Zuni reservation, more than 99 percent of eligible residents are vaccinated. In Union County, on the other side of the state, only 17 percent are.

If you’re at least two weeks past your final dose (and you’re not immunosuppressed or immunocompromised), visiting areas of the U.S. with low vaccine rates isn’t necessarily dangerous for you. (You will probably eventually need a booster shot, but we still don’t know when.) Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me that the bottom line is “we have very efficacious vaccines” in the U.S. Still, she said, getting infected with the coronavirus post-vaccination is “quite rare, but it is possible,” and it’s mathematically more likely in an area where the virus is circulating at high levels and more people are vulnerable to it.

Those who are worried about breakthrough infections—especially those who have vulnerable people in their household—might want to take more precautions in a low-vaccination area than they would in a high-vaccination one. If you’ve returned to indoor dining or CrossFit at home in a highly vaccinated region, consider skipping those activities while traveling to a place that has given out fewer shots.

Visiting less-vaccinated areas can also be an opportunity to model good behavior. “If I’m visiting friends or family there, and maybe they haven’t been vaccinated, I would take that opportunity to talk to them about getting vaccinated,” Popescu said. If you’re traveling because you’ve been invited to an indoor, mask-free, no-shots-required event, attending with a mask “encourages those people who aren’t vaccinated to wear a mask.” Better yet, you can have a conversation with your hosts about how to make the event safer, perhaps by hosting it outside.

2. Plane, train, or automobile?

“If you’re vaccinated, you really don’t need to worry about your exposure on an airplane, on a bus, in the subway, or at the office, or anywhere else you go,” Joseph Allen, an associate professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, told me. Planes especially tend to get a bad rap when it comes to infectious disease (see: the classic Airborne packaging), but flying is actually rather COVID-safe once you’re off the ground. “When the airplane is running, the ventilation and filtration are better than you find in a hospital,” said Allen, who also directs Harvard’s Healthy Buildings Program.

That doesn’t mean air travel is 100 percent risk-free. Security lines, baggage claims, and gates usually don’t have the same ventilation standards as a plane does at 30,000 feet. They can also put you in proximity with lots of people for a long time. Air travel isn’t quite back to pre-pandemic levels, but it’s close: 2.1 million people flew this past Sunday, and about 2.7 million people flew around this same time in 2019. As Popescu put it, “We went from a place where not a lot of people are traveling, and it just snowballed overnight.”

If you or someone you’re traveling with is still vulnerable to the virus—whether it’s because of an immune condition or because they’re still too young to get the shot—Allen recommended paying special attention to the boarding period, when planes might not run their ventilation systems to save power. Similarly, if you’re considering traveling by bus, make sure that operators are replenishing the cabin with fresh air from the outdoors, and not just recirculating unfiltered air from inside.

No matter what form of public transit you choose, you will be required to wear a mask. If you’re not already accustomed to doing so for hours and hours at a time, you could be in for a rude awakening. Before you depart, make sure that your mask is comfortable and fits well, mentally prepare for how long you’ll be wearing it, and make a plan for mask breaks—preferably outside, away from other people, or while the plane’s ventilation system is running at full blast.

3. Are kids invited?

Although the long-term effects of COVID-19 on anyone won’t be clear for a while, it’s pretty evident that young people are at much lower risk of severe illness and death if they do get infected. For a lot of the past year, one of the scariest possible outcomes of a second grader being exposed to the virus was her passing it to her parents; now everyone in the family might be protected but her.

Sean O’Leary, a pediatrician and a professor at the University of Colorado, told me that families that include both kids under 12 and people who can’t be vaccinated or are at high risk for severe COVID-19 might want to be extra mindful of their kids’ exposure, because they could pass it to someone who’s not protected. He also cautioned that “we don’t really have good data yet” on how severe the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which is on track to quickly become dominant in the U.S., is in children, though it does seem to be more transmissible among people of all ages.

Still, the kids don’t necessarily need to stay home all summer. “Flying appears to be a relatively low-risk activity, including with kids,” O’Leary said. If you’re bringing your unvaccinated children to an area with low vaccination and high case rates, make sure that you’re taking appropriate precautions. “If you’re unvaccinated or you have a young child who’s not yet vaccinated or if you’re just feeling extra cautious,” Allen said, “the best thing to do is wear a high-quality mask,” such as an N95, a KN95, or a KF94. That’s especially true if you want to bring the kids to any kind of large event where adults might be unvaccinated too.

4. What if I get stuck next to an anti-masker?

If you’re fully vaccinated and not immunosuppressed or immunocompromised, you shouldn’t be in any significant danger from a seatmate with their nose out. On any long trip, your fellow passengers are going to need to eat and drink, and you should be prepared for that eventuality before buying a ticket. If the guy in seat 27B, say, takes a phone call mask-free and you do want to intervene, Popescu recommends making eye contact with the offender, then making the motion of pulling up your own mask. If you’re particularly worried about mask compliance, you might want to opt for travel by train or plane, where conductors and flight attendants are more likely to be patrolling the rows. But that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a free-for-all at the station or airport before you board.

5. When’s the right time to go?

Things are, for the most part, looking up in the U.S. right now. But the country’s—and the world’s—recovery from the pandemic likely won’t be linear. A fall or winter surge is a distinct possibility, and though vaccinated people will likely still be protected, travel is always riskier when more virus is circulating. The longer vaccination rates lag worldwide, the more opportunity the virus will have to mutate into forms that can outwit existing vaccines.

As long as case rates stay low this summer, it might be a good idea to take the mental-health break you need while you can, so that you’ll be better prepared to hunker down in the cold weather, if needed. The warmer months also offer the advantage of allowing for more outdoor visits and sightseeing. One caveat: Pfizer announced earlier this month that it will likely seek an emergency-use authorization for its vaccine in children under 12 in September. If you’re particularly worried about your young children’s exposure, keep an eye on that target for your vacation planning.

After so long without regular travel, don’t be surprised if you forget some of the basics. Yes, Amtrak will scan your ticket off your phone. (My friends keep forgetting this one.) No, you don’t need to take off all your jewelry in the TSA line. (I forgot that one.)

One of the more important things you might have forgotten is how often you come home from a trip with a cold or worse. Travel forces lots of people together into small spaces, regardless of whether they have the sniffles. It’s hard to keep away from others or wash your hands on a bus. Before the pandemic, Popescu said, travel was a common way people got infected with viruses such as the flu, parainfluenza (which can lead to croup or pneumonia), and a cold-like sickness called RSV that can be dangerous to the very young and the very old.

While you’re busy thinking about how to keep yourself safe from the coronavirus, don’t forget that your shiny new vaccine still leaves you vulnerable to the same old pathogens that plagued us before. Cloroxing your seat-back tray table might not protect you from COVID-19. But maybe we should’ve been doing it all along.