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Coronavirus FAQ: To Travel Or Not To Travel? Plus, Tattoos And Vaccines Can Mix

The relatively empty flights of past months are filling up as more people get vaccinated — and make summer plans. Are there still risks to weigh?
Michele Abercrombie/NPR
The relatively empty flights of past months are filling up as more people get vaccinated — and make summer plans. Are there still risks to weigh?

Each week, we answer "frequently asked questions" about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions."

Airports are getting busier, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't issued new guidelines for people who are vaccinated. So, what's a vaccinated wannabe traveler to do?

That question can best be answered with a healthy chorus of that depends.

With 26% of the population at least partially vaccinated, the temptation to return to pre-pandemic life is high. The problem is that — while laudable — that percentage is still not enough to safely reopen, says Charlotte Baker, assistant professor of epidemiology at Virginia Tech.

And putting the CDC in the position of giving some people the green light to travel when not everyone has had the opportunity to get vaccinated, she says, poses some thorny ethical issues. "Then you get into vaccine passports and the haves and have-nots of who can travel."

Health officials will likely learn from spring break in Miami Beach how much of a spreading risk there is when you have people traveling from all over to one spot. The mayor issued a state of emergency when students who didn't yet qualify to get the vaccine thronged to the popular spring break destination.

Then there is the issue of variants. This week, Florida became the first state to surpass 1,000 variant cases of COVID-19. "With the variants, the more people travel the more they move them around," Baker says. "And all it takes is one person bringing it in. So it's best to keep the number of people moving around low."

"Some say the vaccines do a really good job against the variants; others say they don't know — and it's hard to put the lid back on once it's off," she says.

Until there's new guidance from the CDC, what is the best way to navigate the decision to travel? For that, we turned to Dr. Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center and an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.

"I think whether or not to travel should still hinge on the consideration of risk vs. the importance of the trip," Wu says — adding that it's perfectly acceptable to weigh hugging a family member as important.

Vaccines have mitigated the risk but we're not back to the pre-pandemic world, he points out. The general threshold when it comes to the "why" you are traveling should still be higher than normal — even if you're vaccinated. Wu hasn't been on a plane since the pandemic, but his risk-to-importance ratio may soon tilt toward visiting his elderly parents in Hawaii, he says.

"I have a father whose health is marginal," he says. Now that he and his parents have been vaccinated, "I am thinking the risk may be outweighed by the importance of seeing him."

If you go, here are Wu's suggestions

Seeing only vaccinated people would be safest indoors or out. If you do see unvaccinated people, or others who are not fully vaccinated, make sure to keep all the social distancing and masking precautions in play.

Most airlines aren't holding middle seats open any more, and security lines may be edging back toward normal. So it's extra important to wear a good mask that fits well and keep as distanced from others as possible. That protects both the mask wearer and others around them, since we don't know how much vaccinated people may or may not transmit the virus.

Consider booking an AirBNB or VRBO instead of a hotel if it will help avoid crowded elevators or lobbies.

Quarantine and test before and after — even if you're vaccinated. "It's a small headache in the big scheme of things," Wu says, and it could help control the spread of variants.

Consider a trip to a state or national park with lots of outdoor options — and skip the cruise for now because there are too many enclosed spaces and not enough people vaccinated yet.

If you are visiting anyone at high risk for complications of COVID-19, double down on your precautions, Wu says, adding that he'll probably wear a mask when he visits his parents.

"From a cautionary perspective, we want everyone to stay home," Wu says. "From a realistic perspective, we want everyone to be safe going out."

I got a tattoo two weeks ago. Is it safe to get the vaccine?

Yes! "As long as you went to a place that is safe, certified and accredited with a low risk of skin infection — go get [the vaccine]," says Baker, from Virginia Tech.

I've heard that people without a spleen aren't protected by the vaccine. Is that true?

"I don't have a spleen," says Baker. "You do have to be careful because all vaccines don't always protect us as well as people with spleens. But there's no known biological reason why you wouldn't be protected with the COVID-19 vaccine."

Whether vaccines work as well for immunocompromised people as they do for people who aren't immunocompromised is not clear yet.

"We don't have enough evidence to say it doesn't work as well as in the rest of the population," Baker explains. "We didn't include enough people in the trials without spleens to be totally sure. But you do get protected from COVID and poor outcomes from COVID, which is the most important thing. As the numbers roll in, I think they will confirm the same thing we have seen with other vaccines and people with no spleen — you're good!"

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. She's written about COVID-19 for many publications including Medscape, Kaiser Health News, Science News for Students and The Washington Post. More at sheilaeldred.pressfolios.com. On Twitter: @milepostmedia

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred