Should you fly this holiday season? Heres what Bay Area experts say – San Francisco Chronicle

After sticking close to home for the holidays last year, millions of people will take to the skies this year to reunite with families and make up for lost travel time. The three major Bay Area airports anticipate a significant spike in passenger traffic over the next few weeks as vaccination rates steady and carriers increase their flight schedules.

But at a time when COVID-19 cases are creeping back up in the region — a possible early indicator of another winter surge — is it safe to fly again? How about those with unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children, or who may be more vulnerable to severe illnesses?

“I don’t think traveling is off the table,” said Dr. Theodore Ruel, a pediatrician at UCSF. “Travel is safer now than it used to be.”

The AAA forecasts about 4.2 million Americans will travel by air for the Thanksgiving holiday, an 80% increase from last year.

“Now that the borders are open and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holiday,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) saw nearly half of its pre-pandemic passenger levels return over the summer, according to spokesperson Doug Yakel. The airport expects to recover 60% to 65% of its regular passenger traffic over the coming holiday season.

Public health officials still consider many aspects of flying to be high-risk activities — from traveling to a different region to visiting indoors with a large group of people of mixed vaccination status. It is a time to exercise caution, they say.

“I am not feeling super great about everyone flying across the country and flying back, with our country at a 50% vaccination rate,” said Dr. Lekshmi Santhosh, who works in UCSF’s intensive care unit and co-directs the hospital’s long COVID clinic. “We still don’t have all the people eligible for boosters (getting the shots) and the under-five population. And we don’t have any vaccination requirement for interstate travel.”

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On Monday, the U.S. also ended its ban on travel from specific foreign countries — letting in most vaccinated international travelers for the first time in nearly two years, even as many European regions are reporting record coronavirus cases.

“Taking an unvaccinated child on an international trip would make me nervous, honestly,” said Dr. Meena Pai, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente San Jose. “Domestic is a little bit better because the rules are in place. You have vaccines, testing, masks.”

Many airports have streamlined their coronavirus protocols, offering free tests for travelers and establishing firm rules for masking and other mitigation measures. Industry officials insist that the rate of infection on commercial flights is low. Air filtration systems on planes can inhibit SARS-CoV-2 virus aerosols from spreading throughout a cabin.

But travelers should be prepared for hiccups that go beyond the usual weather delays, such as the widespread service interruptions Southwest and American Airlines experienced last month. Many airports and carriers may also be experiencing staffing issues along the way. Only 60% of TSA employees have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with a deadline for the rest to get their shots less than two weeks away.

AAA suggests passengers arrive at airports two hours ahead of departure time for domestic flights and three hours for international. Pack plenty of patience.

Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatrician at Stanford, said she’s less worried about the flight than what the COVID forecast is like at the destination. If case rates are higher than where you’re coming from, you may want to postpone. Whether it’s OK to travel with children “depends on where I’m going and how vaccinated the people I’m going to see are,” she said.

Checking the vaccination rates at your destination should be as compulsory as checking the weather, said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidimiologist with UCSF.

“It depends on if you’re vaccinated or not vaccinated and where you’re flying from and to,” he said. “If you’re fully vaccinated and boosted, if indicated, I think you’re pretty safe going anywhere.”

Follow the basic mitigation measures along the way: Stay away from crowded areas at the airport, keep your mask on and sanitize your hands frequently.

According to updated rules from the CDC, all adult foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. must be fully vaccinated before boarding their flight. As before, travelers will still have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure to the U.S. Children under 18 don’t need to be vaccinated but do need to take a COVID test.

But with COVID-19, things can change quickly. So the best advice may be to keep your plans flexible.

“We need to see where we are at that point (when families travel),” Ruel said. “As we saw in the U.K., you may get that decline, and then things pick up. If rates go up and we have another surge of delta or another variant that is more contagious, you might have to call that into question. Book the refundable ticket if you can.”

Chronicle staff writers Erin Allday, Nanette Asimov and Catherine Ho contributed to this report.

Aidin Vaziri is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:

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