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Tips for Traveling in Post-COVID America

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covid travelling tips

Our Governor announced the initial plans for opening our state yesterday and many more should do the same over the coming 1-3 weeks. So what will essential travel look like and how can you keep yourself safe? Let’s dig in using what we know rather than the media stoked hype.

Who Should Be Travelling?

First, all state orders allow essential travel. At this point, that’s usually traveling locally for things like groceries or going to the pharmacy, but it’s also traveling anywhere needed for medical care. Once states open up, these restrictions will relax even further.

How Likely Are You to Die From COVID-19?

The first question is the biggest and the one that has kept people from traveling during the past 6 weeks. Based on the most recently published data, your chances of dying from COVID-19 is about 1 in 500 (0.2%) or less. Let’s put that in perspective by looking at other common odds of various lifetime risks of death (1):

  • Cancer: 1 in 7
  • Narcotic overdose 1 in 98
  • Fatal car crash: 1 in 106
  • Shot by a Gun: 1 in 298
  • Hit by a car as a pedestrian: 1 in 541

Your lifetime risk of dying in a car crash is 1 in 106. Hence, the risk of dying from COVID-19 this year in Santa Clara less than this risk.

My Travel Plan

I went a bit over the top on this plan on purpose. As a physician, I have learned to meet people where they are. What that means is that for some of my patients, this travel plan will be way over the top. For others, it will be just right. Hence, I wrote it to reassure my most fastidious and detail-oriented patients.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself If You Need to Fly

Before the Airport

Things you’ll need:

  • 70% IPA (alcohol) and 3 oz spray or other plastic bottles-While it takes a bit to source this stuff, it’s still out there for sale. You can use the 3 oz size to carry on the plane and get through security as that’s the max volume allowed. Get a large zip-lock bag to hold these smaller bottles so that you can take that out for the security screening.
  • Disposable Gloves-Cheap non-sterile gloves abound.
  • A Surgical or N95 Type Mask-If a surgical mask, it should have a bendable metal piece on the top of the mask that can conform to your nose. To check the fit, after fully conforming the nose piece tightly to your nose, you should be able to wear glasses without fogging them up too much. While cloth masks look cool, there is not much data they help. If you can get an N-95 type respirator (these may become more available as the PPE shortage breaks open) then that would be even better. Here, the fit to the face is everything, so make sure it fits.
  • A 12-ounce Hand Sanitizer Bottle-These are now allowed in your check-in luggage during the crisis. If you can’t find any, you can use your 70% IPA or see this link for the DIY recipe.
  • Disinfectant Wipes-Get a small travel container or your IPA spray plus a travel-size Kleenex pack will work just as well.
  • Portable UV-C Wand-These are about $50. They emit a type of light that damages the viral envelope and they have been used in healthcare and lab settings for years.
  • Take Your Phone Out of its Case-This will make it far easier to clean.
  • Bring your own food and snacks from home. 

The gloves and the IPA spray are what we do in the office to reduce the spread of the virus. Hence, this is a healthcare hack that we validated in our lab. Wear the gloves full time while you’re traveling. Use the 70% IPA as your “hand wash” every time you come in contact with a shared surface or another person. How does that work?

Use a small squirt of IPA on your gloved palms and rub your hands together making sure to get your fingers interlaced. Rub the palms as well as use one hand to rub the back of the other hand and then the fingertips against the palms. Do this until the IPA evaporates and you are now sterile.

Think like a surgeon! Meaning, when physicians perform sterile procedures, they keep a constant mental note of what their sterile hands have touched. Practice doing this at home once you have sterilized your hands with IPA.

You could try to do all of this with hand sanitizer and no gloves, but frankly, it gets tough on your hands. By using the gloves and the IPA, it’s also reminding you of the situation and protecting your skin from the harsh alcohol.

Print your ticket at home or use an airline ticket app on your phone. Meaning, do not check-in at the counter. Only use carryon luggage, so travel light.

Getting to the Airport

Take your own car and park it rather than a ride-sharing service, bus, train, subway, or taxi.

In the Airport

Stay at least 6 feet from everyone. You’ll be skipping the baggage check-in as well as the airline counter and going directly to security. When you get to the security checkpoint, show the TSA person your ID and ticket. Phone apps that show tickets work better here as does a phone out of its case. Sterilize your phone with the disinfectant wipes after you hand it to someone or if it touches a shared surface. If you get hungry, you have your own snacks. You can use the UV wand or disinfecting wipes to wipe down the shared parts of any chairs you sit in. The focus here are the parts that you contact with your hands or arms like the armrests, not the seat or seatback. You can also sterilize your gloved hands with the IPA spray at any time.

In the Plane

Wipe down the armrests and tray table when you get to your seat. If possible, pick a seat that is away from the next passenger, if not, you have your mask and the ability to sterilize your hands in a few seconds. Use your own food and drink rather than taking anything from the airline staff.

In the Hotel

This is where your UV-C sterilizer wand comes in handy. You can now easily deactivate any viral particles that may be left on shared surfaces in the room. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

I wouldn’t worry about the air, as small droplets can only stay suspended for a few hours, so by the time you get to your room, it will likely have been empty for longer than a few hours.

The upshot? As you can see, if you need to travel, it can be done to minimize your risk. In addition, it’s critical to understand what you’re protecting yourself against. Meaning you are about as likely to get killed on the way to the airport as you are to die from COVID. Hence, please keep it all in perspective!

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(1) Injury Facts. Preventable Deaths: Odds of Dying. https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/all-injuries/preventable-death-overview/odds-of-dying/ Accessed 4/21/20.

Category: Coronavirus

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10 thoughts on “Tips for Traveling in Post-COVID America

  1. Stacey Kaufman

    Ordered a UVC wand from Amazon for my trip to you for 3rd PICL. On Amazon it was advertised to kill viruses within 10 seconds. (240-280nm). Instruction manual says nothing. Is 10 seconds enough time? Can’t seem to find answers online about nm and time.

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      Yes

  2. Chris Anderson

    A few things I’m confused about: 1) You said in a previous blog (“Did we just blowup the economy”) that the fatality rate for covid (the probability of dying given you have the virus, symptomatic or not) is 0.14%. In this blog you say the odds of dying from it is 0.2%. And you compare those odds with dying from other things like from cancer. Those cancer odds are given you just live in the U.S., not that you have cancer. So is the 0.14%/ 0.2% rate for covid given you just live in the U.S. or that you get covid? 2) The site you reference specifically says that we can’t yet determine the odds of dying from covid. Do you think there is enough good evidence to determine that? 3) I think part of the reason there are differing opinions about the degree of threat covid presents is that we all have to act like it’s a danger to us individually to keep it from becoming a real danger to us. We’re not used to acting on behalf of the world or even the U.S. population

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      Chris, the actual odds based on the Stanford data is actually approx 0.1%. I upped it by adding 20 deaths to those that were reported in Satna Clara county. In fact, it’s more likely than not that the COVID deaths reported were not all “excess deaths” due to COVID (i.e. the person would not have died if not for COVID) which is what you need to calculate a case fatality rate. On 0.2%, that’s just me erring again on the side of an over-estimate of fatality. On the site that estimates the rate of death from various common things, they obviously don’t have this new dataset out of Stanford. In the meantime, there is another round of tests ongoing ion NY this week and next, so we will soon have more data to calculate fatality rates from. In addition, given the testing log jam is breaking open, there are literally millions of tests about to be done over the next 30-60 days, so we will soon have MUCH more data. Hence, I would expect that US testing will be in the 50,000/million range very soon. Hence, if the fatality is in the 0.1% range, that’s 2X influenza. That means it’s time to err on the side of opening up the economy as deaths due to economic factors will outweigh COVID deaths.

  3. Mark Kleinsmith

    Air Vent on the plane…I’ve read where the air filtration systems on planes are effective at eliminating the virus from the air that will come out of the vents and thus it’s good to have the vent actually blow on you to create an envelope of sanitized air around you. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      Air systems on planes are notoriously bad, so no, I would keep it closed.

  4. Sam Samarasinghe

    Chris, I am a faithful follower of your corvid blog. Your stats on deaths by an auto accident is confusing.
    According to your reference article, there were 40,000 deaths in 2018 for a population of 350 million.
    Your travel tips were very helpful

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      One is a lifetime odds reported by the National Safety Council here: https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/all-injuries/preventable-death-overview/odds-of-dying/ The other is an annual odds. The annual death rate citation I have here I didn’t cite in the piece and can’t find again right now, so I made that change. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. Chris Wood

    I was a commercial pilot and aircraft mechanic for 30 years. I have one suggestion/correction- the air vent above you is fresh air from the engine compressors, mixed 50/50 with cabin air, then run trough a mixing manifold, then through HEPA filters that remove 99% of particulates. The other half of the cabin air is dumped overboard thru outflow valves keeping the pressure in the plane acceptable to humans. Then the air is cooled and pumped to the cabin thru the vents and other locations. The cabin air is replaced 10 to 12 times an hour. It is not just recycled air. So, turning the vent on you gives you a small area of fresh filtered air to breathe. Aircraft cabin air has less bacteria and particulates than most offices and homes because of the constant replenishment of outside air and the HEPA filters.

    1. Chris Centeno, MD Post author

      Thanks for the inside info, Chris! I will update the post…

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