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Tips on how to protect yourself from the COVID-19 Delta variant while traveling

July 17, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

With summer travel on the rise and countries opening their borders to international visitors, the threat of the Delta variant of COVID-19 looms. Within the past month, the uptick has alarmed health officials, with a rise from 11,000 cases a day to approximately 26,000 in the United States alone.

Viruses mutate and evolve to evade the immune response, so COVID would inevitably do the same. Now that the variant is spreading quickly globally, mitigating risk is essential. It was the hope to see a significant increase in tourist travel in Europe this summer as the economies of Southern European countries, like Spain and Greece, are heavily dependent on tourism, which makes up for tourism can be 10% to 15% of their GDP. Same with places like Patagonia, where almost 90% of its economy is from tourism, according to Fernando Diez, marketing manager of Quasar, a travel company focusing on trips to Patagonia and Galapagos.

But the increase in cases because of the Delta variant makes prospects look a bit doubtful. “Right now, a lot of countries are beginning to see big increases in the numbers of cases, and they’re putting restrictions on travel because of that,” says Geoff Heal, professor of economics at Columbia Business School. “So, it’s actually not clear what’s going to happen to tourism, and indeed to business travel.”

What is the Delta variant?

Epidemiologists and scientists alike are learning about Delta in real-time and how its pathogens are different from the original COVID strain. Ongoing research data, however, is starting to suggest that the variant is likely amplifying the amount of aerosol generated in the airways of infected patients, which makes it more contagious.

“When we breathe, we generate little respiratory droplets that form in our upper airways. When you breathe in air, particles or pathogen fall out,” says Dr. David Edwards, FEND inventor and longstanding Harvard University professor and aerosol scientist. “And when you breathe, that mucus and the pathogen can actually break up and form little respiratory droplets. You don’t want these respiratory droplets.”

Because the variant has a significant impact on the growth of the number of respiratory droplets, transmissibility is increasingly efficient and dangerous. Thus, like the original COVID-19 strain, the risk of catching the disease increased without vaccination or with a vaccination with low efficacy, such as China’s Sinopharm (seen in South American countries).

Due to the reemergence of comingling in crowded spaces, weaker mask mandates, and looser protective measure, the spread is growing rapidly. “I think it is a dangerous turn in the pandemic,” Edward says. “I think that vaccination is critical right now. And a lot of data is showing that.”

How is this impacting travel?

The most considerable growth for American travelers has occurred domestically, both in tourism and business. “There’s been quite a significant increase in air travel in the U.S. in the last few months,” says Heal. “And that’s partly because the U.S. is a sort of a self-contained market with very few regulations or restrictions on travel within the U.S.” Whereas, if you look at the European market, there are inconsistent restrictions from country to country. Moreover, rules change weekly, so free-flow travel of the past poses a challenge.

Because of this, Heal is uncertain when there will be a true, consistent spike in global travel. “It’s really not clear when international tourism is going to [fully] come back. That’s partly because of the restrictions that are still in place in many countries.” For example, many high-risk countries without access to vaccines still have not fully opened their borders or are executing incredibly tight restrictions on travel. In countries like the United Kingdom or the U.S., most people who want to get vaccinated are, but that’s not true in Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and India, where access is sparse.

What to do if you are traveling

If you are traveling, the World Health Organization suggests understanding your personal level of risk and taking appropriate measures to keep yourself and those around you protected. For example, during travel, even if you are vaccinated, WHO recommends that you continue, “wearing a mask, washing hands frequently, maintaining physical distance, and avoiding crowded places, and poorly ventilated settings whenever possible.” 

Know high-risk regions due to low vaccination or continued spread

Before you travel, know the requirements and policies from where your trip originates and where you are going. The CDC continuously updates its travel recommendations by destination, which includes a comprehensive list of countries at various levels of risk.

Traveling internationally or domestically

Considering the contained market of U.S. travel, it is certainly easier to navigate restrictions. However, as the variant continues to spread, that might evolve. For instance, Chicago implemented restrictions on travelers from Missouri and Arkansas, requiring a ten-day quarantine or negative COVID test within 72 hours of arriving. The CDC also has a frequently updated list of states and counties to review if you stay within the US.

Vaccinated versus unvaccinated

WHO and CDC do not recommend travel for unvaccinated people, domestically or internationally, where travelers can easily get or spread the virus. However, if you are vaccinated, travel is a lower risk, but standard health precautions are still advised to not transmit the disease while traveling.

Boutique hotels over corporate with higher density

Book low-occupancy hotels rather than large corporate ones, suggests Diez. This way, there is naturally less exposure to other people and ease of social distancing.

Breathe humid air

According to Edwards, research over the last decade shows hydrating the upper airways helps reduce symptoms of airborne infectious disease. To hydrate lungs, you can breathe humid air anywhere between 40% to 60% relative humidity; wear a mask, which increases humidity in the upper airways; and maintain what he calls “airway hygiene.” A new handheld product called FEND that uses “proprietary calcium-enriched saline solution” that eliminates airborne contaminants.  

What should I do if I get sick while traveling?

According to WHO, if you have any symptoms of COVID-19 during a trip, you should notify health authorities immediately and follow their guidance.

Booking travel can be extremely complicated considering all the paperwork, restrictions, and guidelines that vary from place to place. To assist with this, using a travel company can ease the headache and help guide through the complex planning.

Edwards, for one, has not stopped traveling, rather he is adhering to protective measures. “My own advice to my family and my friends, and my own personal advice, is to take the obvious precautions and to live your life,” he says. “And if you are in a really at-risk category, then you take really special precautions.” Heal, on the other hand, believes international travel is very tricky at the moment and doesn’t make a lot of sense to do it extensively.

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