As spring break approaches, public health experts urge caution

The outlook for the pandemic in the US continues to improve, with confirmed Covid-19 cases falling for the sixth week in a row and deaths have declined for the past three weeks. But spring break is on the horizon, bringing with it a potential increase in travel, which has public health experts worried about the consequences if people don’t stay alert.

Spring break travel anxiety is on the rise after a particularly bleak months when the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths increased dramatically after the year-end holiday season. And with several strains of the coronavirus circulating in the country, including some variants believed to be more transmissible, some experts worry that spring break getaways could threaten recent progress.

“Any event that involves increased travel and people relaxing preventive measures is a concern,” said Amber D’Souza, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

D’Souza said the patterns that have emerged over the past year demonstrate how much the trajectory of the pandemic is driven by behavioral changes. For example, when places experience severe outbreaks, people often respond by staying home, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks. But as the situation improves and restrictions are eased, many tend to become more lax, which can lead to new outbreaks emerging.

“This is exactly what we saw after Thanksgiving and after Christmas,” he said. “It is a continuous cycle and a constant concern.”

Last March, the United States was just beginning to emerge as the new center of the pandemic, and states have struggled to contain the spread of the virus for the past year. On Sunday, the United States reached 500,000 deaths from Covid-19, dwarfing the death toll for all other countries.

Although the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths has decreased in recent weeks, the US still averages more than 1,000 daily deaths from Covid-19.

“Rates have come down,” D’Souza said, “but they are not yet what we would consider low. We are much better than a month ago.”

D’Souza said some spring break trips in the past year have led to local outbreaks, but the true impact of spring trips may never be known because the data was not tracked nationally. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in particular, was heavily criticized for refusing to close beaches last March, even as the coronavirus was spreading in the state.

This year, some officials are enacting new restrictions before spring break. Miami Beach is introducing a midnight curfew in the entertainment district and alcohol is prohibited on the beach.

“If you come here because you think it’s a place where anything goes, turn around or go somewhere else,” Mayor Dan Gelber told WPLG-TV on Monday.

At the same time, US airports are seeing steady increases in passengers compared to last year, although the level of travel in the US remains significantly lower overall.

Clayton Reid, CEO of travel marketing firm MMGY Global, said the rally started last summer and is expected to continue.

“We expect a great return from travel in the spring and summer,” he said, adding that leisure travel, in particular, is likely to increase dramatically once vaccines become available to more people.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been advising Americans to avoid unnecessary travel.

But if people are determined to spring getaways, there are ways to lower the risks, said Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.

“In general, driving elsewhere will always be safer than having to be at airports or bus terminals or traveling by train with other people,” he said.

Outdoor experiences, such as camping trips and visits to state or national parks, are also less risky, he said. But regardless of the destination, Khabbaza and D’Souza said, it is important to avoid large gatherings, wear masks and practice social distancing.

“You want to be masked or find a place that is remote,” D’Souza said. “If you’re sitting in a crowded bar with a lot of unmasked people, it’s definitely a potential source of transmission.”

D’Souza said he acknowledged that people may be dealing with pandemic fatigue and are looking for an escape, especially when the weather warms up, but urged people to be cautious and weigh the risks.

“If people don’t travel at all, that’s the safest thing to do,” he said. “But if people choose to travel, it’s about being smart.”

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