How Safe Is It to Travel With Unvaccinated Children? Here's What Experts Say

Summer is prime vacation time and, if you have kids at home, it's understandable that you'd want to get in a trip before school starts again. But children under the age of 12 aren't currently eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the US, making them more vulnerable than others to getting the virus—and that should absolutely factor into your vacation plan-making.

That's not all: The Delta variant also continues to fuel COVID-19 cases in the US: Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, recently said on PBS's NewsHour that the variant currently makes up 80% of cases—a huge jump from the 31% the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last month. Fauci also told NewsHour that Delta is a "very dangerous" variant.

The CDC has flagged Delta as a "variant of concern," pointing out that it's more easily transmissible than other variants, may reduce the effectiveness of monoclonal antibody treatments, and may make COVID-19 vaccines less effective.

That raises a lot of important questions, including whether traveling with an unvaccinated child is safe. Here's what pediatricians and infectious disease experts have to say.

So, is it safe to travel with an unvaccinated child?

A lot of it comes down to personal risk tolerance, Mark Hicar, MD, PhD, associate professor of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Health. "The amount of risk one tolerates on a day-to-day basis varies by person, so something that one considers 'safe,' others may think is risky," he points out.

Still, there are some other factors to consider. "If the location you are planning to travel is experiencing high rates, I would consider cancelling the trip or making sure the location you are staying in and the people you will interact with have been practicing social distancing and optimal safety measures," Dr. Hicar says.

COVID-19 research is your friend here if you're planning on vacationing with unvaccinated children. "I strongly recommend doing extensive research on what is going on locally with COVID-19," Rosemary Olivero, MD, pediatric infectious disease physician at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, tells Health. "I generally would not recommend this unless you have a healthy family with plenty of flexibility—both in terms of finances and time—regarding your trip, as this could get derailed should someone in your family test positive for COVID-19."

The type of vacation you're planning on taking matters, too, he says. "There are big differences in taking a vacation to a city where you are going to museums, ballgames, and visiting amusement parks, and going on a family camping or hiking vacation, or going to visit and solely spending time with extended family," Dr. Hicar points out.

Robert Hamilton, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, and host of the podcast The Hamilton Review: Where Kids and Culture Collide, tells Health that it's largely OK to travel with unvaccinated kids—if the proper precautions are followed. "That means having all children over the age of two wearing a mask in public places, and practicing good hand hygiene," he says.

Dr. Hamilton says that parents shouldn't feel like they need to miss out on important family events, like weddings and visiting aging or ill grandparents. "We have been divorced from our families by necessity and, as things open up a bit, it's important to try to see them," he says.

So if you do choose to travel, what are your best and safest options?

In general, experts recommend traveling by car, when possible. "A road trip is safer," Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health. Dr. Hamilton agrees. "It's like traveling in your living room," he says.

However, Dr. Hamilton says you should keep in mind that you'll need to have masks—and hand sanitizer—handy for rest stops.

But driving isn't always the best option, Dr. Hicar says. "If you are going to drive through 'hotspots' of spreading virus, it may be better to fly," he says. "Choosing a driving vacation that necessitates hotel stays and a large number of stops adds measurable risk as well."

Flying can be OK, Dr. Hamilton says—you just need to make sure that you and your children are following the right precautions. "Flying on a plane presents challenges," he says, "but airlines are doing a wonderful job of keeping people healthy. They are not the focal point of super spreader events."

If you choose to fly, Dr. Hicar recommends trying to get a direct flight to "cut down on extra crowd exposure."

And of course, that's only for domestic travel within the US—international travel will have its own set of complications and issues, and is not recommended for unvaccinated people (including unvaccinated children of vaccinated parents). "International travel will be much more complex with unvaccinated persons," Dr. Olivero says. "In general, the CDC is not recommending international travel for those who are unvaccinated."

If for some reason you do have to travel internationally with unvaccinated children, know this: Things will be "wildly different" outside of the US, depending on where you go, Dr. Olivero says. "From a very general view, traveling internationally with unvaccinated persons means potential quarantines, frequent testing before boarding flights, and subjecting yourself to highly contagious variants," she says. 

Overall, experts say it's OK to travel with unvaccinated kids—you just need to be on high alert. "It's certainly reasonable to travel," Dr. Hamilton says. "You just need to follow the right precautions."

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