The rapidly spreading omicron coronavirus variant means Canadians should be “ready to pivot” their travel plans within the country during this holiday season, said medical experts studying COVID-19.
“If [you] can avoid travel, avoid it,” said Dr. Peter Juni, the head of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. “We just need to really seriously cut down on our contact.”
And to those who’ve already purchased plane or train tickets for domestic travel, he said he has one question: “Can you cancel still?”
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has said the omicron variant caseload could “rapidly escalate” in the coming days, and that it’s on its way to becoming the dominant coronavirus strain in Canada.
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It’s considered highly contagious and can infect those who have been vaccinated, but early reports suggest it may pose a less severe risk of hospitalization.
Juni noted that even those who have been vaccinated twice may be at risk at getting infected or transmitting the virus within the confines of a plane or train.
David Naylor, co-chair of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force suggested people who do decide to travel in coming weeks exercise more caution and look for alternatives to their modes of travel to avoid being in cramped quarters.
“I completely understand that, for all kinds of personal reasons, many Canadians will want to travel in the next three weeks,” Naylor said in an email to CBC News. “If you can avoid travel or get where you want to go in a private car with a limited number of trusted passengers, so much the better.”
Try to avoid travel
Naylor noted Canadian regulations require everyone 12 and older on a plane, train, or ship to be fully vaccinated. He also said air filtration on planes is generally efficient and in-flight transmission of COVID-19 has been rare, so far.
“With Omicron, I suspect that may change, and train rides are also riskier now,” he said. “So again, please mask carefully, and limit the time that your mask is off during the flight or train rides.”
Naylor also recommended limiting holiday gatherings to family and trusted friends who have received two or three COVID-19 vaccines.
“I would not set a specific limit on numbers in those circumstances, but the bigger the gathering, the higher the risk that omicron or delta will crash the party,” he said.
Vaccination status is key, said University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. Jeff Kwong, and everyone travelling by air or train should ideally have three doses — or at least two, if they are only eligible for two. But travellers can also be safer by wearing high quality N95 or KF94 masks, he said.
“You can’t entirely eliminate the risk,” he said. “I mean, the only way to eliminate the risk is you don’t go anywhere, but you can try to make things as safe as possible.”
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said Canadians should think about where they’re travelling, especially if they’re headed to a region with high omicron numbers, and then determine how best to minimize their risk.
“If you’ve been vaccinated to the absolute utmost level that you can be vaccinated to under your current guidelines, that helps,” she said.
But if Canadians have family members who are at a higher risk because of their medical condition, “you’d want to really look at the circumstances, the timing, the where, the when, the air exchange, the masking for that situation especially.”
Rapid testing could also play a role in travel plans, but should only be used as an additional layer of protection, she said. It should be considered a “red-light test”, meaning, an individual who tests positive should not be in contact with anyone. And someone who tests negative should be as careful had they never been tested, she said.
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Like Naylor, Saxinger noted planes generally have good ventilation filtration systems, and said with the current levels of omicron in Canada, “domestic flights are probably reasonable.”
She advised air travellers to wear a well-fitting medical mask or N95 mask, noting the fit “makes a huge difference.”
‘Be ready to pivot’
Still, Saxinger cautioned that as things evolve, and more information comes forward, people may have to “be ready to pivot” their travel plans.
For example, if Canadians are planning to travel somewhere that’s having an “explosive omicron outbreak” and some people in their group are at higher risk, they “might want to rethink that just because it’s really changing so quickly.”
“I’m still planning to travel to see family, but I’m also preparing myself mentally for cancelling that,” Saxinger said.
As for family gatherings Saxinger suggested no more than 10 per household and said she would advise family pods eat separately, and when all gathered together people should leave on their masks.
“There’s a whole bunch of different ways you could try to reduce potential risk,” she said. “Thinking about the airspace, masking when you’re not eating, thinking about the ventilation, still doing hand hygiene and still doing potentially even distancing….
“It’s still worthwhile.”