Protecting Your Family From Both COVID & the Flu During Holiday Travel, Gatherings

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November 22, 2021


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The flu has begun its annual spread across the nation, just as holiday travel and family gatherings are expected to rebound close to pre-pandemic levels — despite flare-ups of COVID-19 hospitalizations in parts of the U.S. and other nations.

Moreover, more people are relaxing early-pandemic habits of wearing masks and social distancing, almost certainly creating a perfect storm for the return of a busy flu season. Like COVID-19, the flu virus spreads mainly by droplets formed when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. Both the flu and COVID-19 can weaken your immune system, making a person more susceptible to contracting the other virus.

Unlike last year at this time, there are readily available vaccines for both the flu and COVID-19. Nonetheless, if you are planning to travel internationally during the holidays, make sure to check the COVID-19 Travel Recommendations section from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which provides risk levels and travel restrictions for most nations.

“We’re advising patients that it’s really important to get their influenza vaccine as well as their COVID shots,” explains David Mishkin, M.D., an emergency medicine specialist with Baptist Health South Florida, and medical director of Telehealth and Care on Demand. “We’re starting to see a little bit of an increase in influenza exposure right now. That’s because people are somewhat backing off a little bit from those pandemic precautions with the masks and social distancing. If precautions are taken and people get their flu shots, hopefully the flu numbers won’t be as bad as they were before the pandemic.”

A recent Baptist Healthtalk podcast, Don’t Let COVID-19 or the Flu Ruin Your Holidays, focused on precautions families and friends should take if they are resuming normal or near-normal holiday travel and gatherings this year.

“Preparing to travel during the holiday season can be stressful this year in the middle of a pandemic and flu season,” said Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., deputy medical director and chief of cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, who hosted the podcast. “Your travel plans may look a little different from years past. Finding the best ways to keep you and your family safe while traveling is extremely important.”

Joining Dr. Mishkin on the podcast were Sara M. Panella, Pharm D., a clinical pharmacist with Baptist Health, and Jose Llach, D.O., medical director of the emergency department at Baptist Health Hospital in Doral.

Here are question-and-answer excerpts from the podcast:

If you’ve been vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19, what precautions should you take if traveling during the holidays?

Dr. David Mishkin:

“I think that we can tell our patients and our community that it is safe to travel. But there are precautions that we need to really adhere to before traveling. Er need to make sure that, you know, people are fully vaccinated before they travel — and that’s two weeks after your final dose. You can take advantage of widespread testing availability, which is now really becoming ubiquitous. So, whether that’s testing before, during or after traveled from either symptoms or exposure… And when in transit, you need to wear a face mask. That especially pertains to being on airplanes, trains, and buses, to really prevent exposure. And maintain social distancing when you can, in order to prevent exposure when you’re in indoor or public places.”

Are there any recommendations about being exposed to people of various ages when you’re traveling to visit family?

Dr. Jose Llach:

“You certainly need to take precautions if you’re going to go visit a family member, especially a family member who is immunocompromised — maybe he or she is being treated for cancer. Or the relative is older. You definitely want to do the precautions. You definitely want to protect yourself so you can protect them. But, at the same time, you definitely want to avoid those settings like concerts, hockey games — basically areas where a lot of people are going to be together for the most part. Nonetheless, if you are going to go to these locations, you definitely need to take precautions — wear your mask and want wash your hands. In fact, every time I go anywhere with my wife, we always wash our hands.”

For people who are going to travel, what are the recommendations regarding the timing of vaccinations? 

Sara M. Panella, Pharm D.:

“Typically, you have to get the two doses and it takes about two weeks to get fully immunized after that second dose. So, if you do plan ahead, it’s always good to plan about a month and a half, around 45 days, prior to your travel date. You do have some immunity after your first dose. So, if you weren’t able to plan ahead at least plan for now get your dose. And, hopefully, some of it kicks in prior to the holiday season for at least that first series. If you’re in the zone for boosters, right now, what they’re recommending is that you get your booster at least six months after your last dose, or you’re the last of your series, your second dose — unless you got Johnson & Johnson. You can actually get the booster two months after that first dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”

What are we recommending for children regarding COVID-19 or the flu prior to traveling?

Sara M. Panella, Pharm D.:

“So, if your child is eligible for COVID vaccinations — children five years and older are approved for vaccination — then they should definitely get the vaccine. If there are not eligible, or are younger than five, it’s best thing for them to mask up to stay safe … clean the areas as much as possible, and have them keep their distance. Now, with flu vaccine, six months and up are eligible to get the flu vaccine. So, anyone who can get vaccinated during this time to try to prevent those diseases, that would be great — that’s how we can protect our children.”

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