The third year of the pandemic holiday season is upon us, but this year, instead of thinking about how to protect yourself from the coronavirus, people are worried about how to avoid the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, the so-called triad.

What is different this year is that there is no federal mandate to wear masks on public transportation. And even though the number of coronavirus cases is increasing, there is no suggestion that orders will be restored.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Transportation Security Administration say it’s a good idea to wear a mask, but they don’t require travelers to do so.

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“The CDC recommends wearing a high-quality mask or respirator over the nose and mouth in places of public transportation (such as airplanes, trains, buses, ferries) and transportation hubs (such as airports, stations, and seaports),” it says on its website.

With in-flight surveillance close to 2019 levels — the TSA searched more than 4.5 million people last weekend — here are some steps you can take to stay safe while traveling during the holidays.

Do I have to wear a mask on the plane even though it is not necessary?

You should “absolutely” wear a mask while traveling, say public health researchers, infectious disease doctors and air filtration experts. Although airlines have good screening systems, they can increase the risk of exposure by increasing exposure to other travelers on crowded planes, said Saskia Popescu, an assistant professor at the Schaar School of Policy. and government at George Mason University.

“Now it combines this with the rapidly increasing number of covid, influenza, RSV and seasonal respiratory viruses,” she said. “If you’re traveling by plane, train, bus or boat, I highly recommend wearing a mask.”

Should I put the mask somewhere else?

“If you’re coming up on vacation, it’s important that you look and feel good,” says Dr. Lindsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an expert on airborne virus transmission. If you want to be able to spend time with your loved ones or do some activity you’ve been looking forward to all year, and not want to be in bed or sick or make other people sick, then definitely wear a mask. You’re traveling,” she added. “Not just on the plane, but in airports, buses, transit, and everywhere else you go in between.”

Even if you’re not traveling, experts say it’s a good idea to wear a mask wherever you live with lots of people in an enclosed space, even if it’s not necessary.

Popescu said she recently started developing nonspecific symptoms, including a sore throat. She was diagnosed with covid and caught it while flying home from a work trip.

“I would personally say that those are the times when you consider the risk to be low, or where precautions are taken that could result in exposure,” she said.

I know wearing a mask will keep you from spreading the coronavirus, but what about the flu and RSV?

Masks prevent the spread of all types of germs and are “the best tool we have to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, from Covid to influenza to RSV,” Popescu said.

Marr said flu and RSV are transmitted “at least in part” in the same way as Covid-19.

Traveling over the holidays is a good time to remember the “Three Cs” we first heard about in 2020 – closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded spaces and close contact situations – and to wear a mask in each of these situations.

Do I need to wear a different mask when I travel?

Although wearing a mask is very effective in preventing the spread of the virus, it is still important to wear a mask to protect yourself from infection when wearing a mask, especially if you are using a high-quality mask.

“I think if you’re worried about wearing a mask at this point, you should get a high-quality one,” Marr said. That generally means N95, KN95 or KF94, she added. They are more effective than cloth masks or surgical masks.

These are widely available, inexpensive, and you can wear one until you notice it’s dirty, loosen the straps, or break.

Should I get tested for covid before and after travel?

If you’re traveling to or from abroad, you’re not required to get tested, but the CDC and medical officials say it’s a good idea. “Consider getting tested for the virus as soon as possible (no more than three days) before travel,” says the CDC. If you test positive, they say you should delay your trip.

If you are traveling and plan to meet people without wearing a mask, there are more reasons to check before your flight and for a few days after landing,” Popescu said. “How much you test is about your risk profile and preferences.”

You should consider things like how much you interact with others, whether you’re with vulnerable people, and whether you don’t wear a mask.

“In general, I recommend that you try twice before you go and during your trip,” said Popescu.

About vaccination?

US citizens and immigrants do not need to be vaccinated to fly in or out of the US. Non-citizens and non-U.S. immigrants traveling by air to the United States must show proof of full vaccination against Covid-19. Only special conditions apply. If you are not fully immunized and are specially approved for air travel to the United States, you will need to sign a certificate stating that you meet the special conditions before boarding your flight. Depending on the type of exception, you may also need to state that you plan to take certain preventive measures.

All travelers must also provide their address information to airlines to assist in contact tracing if necessary.

Is it too late to get a boost?

Bernard Cummins, medical director of infection prevention at Mount Sinai Health System, and Aaron Milstone, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, both said it’s “never too late” to get updated COVID-19 advice.

“Most evidence suggests that it may take 14 days for a full immune response to a vaccine dose, but some early evidence suggests that people may develop an antibody response within a few days,” Millstone said. “You may have more protection in a few weeks, but there may be some benefit after a few days, so get an early holiday gift by getting the boost.”

Cummins says that since there isn’t good data on this aspect of boosters, the booster may be effective before the 14-day mark. And, he said, it’s easier to get treatment sooner when more vaccines are available. “It would work if you made an appointment today,” he said.

Is there anything else I can do to safely prepare for my trip?

The experts suggest considering why you’re traveling and possibly taking extra precautions. “We’re at the point where these diseases are not a personal threat to most people if you’re healthy. At the same time, we often get together with family during the holidays, and especially visit with more vulnerable people and elderly family members,” said Marr.

Marr’s nuclear family spends the holidays with her elderly parents, so in an effort to reduce the chance of any disease spreading to them, her family takes extra precautions such as not visiting crowded indoor spaces before their trip.

“We will not be going to any restaurants during that week to reduce our chances of picking up the virus and bringing it to them,” she said.

Cold and seasonal respiratory viruses like RSV are also easily spread through contaminated items and hands, “so hand hygiene and cleaning/sanitizing high-touch areas is an important strategy,” Popescu said. “Also, a good reminder to avoid touching your face.”

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