Summer travel complicates efforts by public health officials to contain COVID-19 as cases rise in some of the country’s popular tourist destinations.
White House officials have repeatedly sounded the alarm in recent weeks that one in five new cases are in Florida, but that number likely underestimates the spread in the southern state.
“If you are from Nebraska and come to Florida for your vacation and your test is positive, it will not be counted,” said Dr. Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, who has tracked the state case. on its website. “Florida only has residents. “
Salemi said it is difficult to quantify the role tourism plays in the spread of the virus due to a lack of case data among travelers from other states, but he and other medical experts say that it is a factor that contributes to promoting infections both in tourist destinations and in states of origin on return.
Even a beach vacation likely involves time in crowded indoor areas that are ripe for the spread, experts said.
“I imagine tourism is great for business, but it probably doesn’t help much in terms of the spread of the virus,” Salemi said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not advise against domestic travel, but did recognize that it was contributing to the spread of the virus – even among those vaccinated – in a study released last week on an outbreak of cases in July in Provincetown, Mass., A popular Cape Cod vacation area.
Data showed that 74% of the 469 cases occurred among fully vaccinated individuals. According to the report, people who were part of the outbreak said they attended densely packed indoor and outdoor events at bars, restaurants and rental homes.
The report mentioned “the potential risk of infection when attending large public gatherings that include travelers from many areas with different levels of transmission.”
Although guidelines for domestic travel are managed at the state level, President Joe Biden’s administration has not recommended states to impose stricter restrictions even though it has urged areas that have significant quantities. or high spread to reinstate the mandates of indoor masks.
“The more people we have on the move, the more likely we are to see a viral spread,” said Cameron Webb, White House senior policy advisor on COVID-19 fairness. “But we can mitigate that with good public health practices, whether it’s the vaccine, which is our best approach, or whether it’s some sort of masking, keeping distance, avoiding crowded spaces, which , in my opinion, is also very critical. “
CDC director Rochelle Walensky in an interview on Friday said vacationers should make sure they are vaccinated and consult state and local guidelines before traveling.
“But then the other thing I could say that is really important for travel, or otherwise, is if you have any symptoms that could be considered COVID – upper respiratory tract symptoms, loss of taste or smell. – please get tested, because a lot of people say, ‘oh, it’s just the cold that I caught’, and they don’t even think about getting tested, ”Walensky said.
Biden said on Friday that further restrictions related to COVID-19 are possible in the future, but on Monday White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed that “we are not going back to the March 2020 closures. “.
LOW VACCINATION, HIGH TOURISM
The more contagious delta variant combined with low vaccination rates in states popular for tourists, such as Florida and Nevada, has been the recipe for an increase in cases, experts say.
Nevada, the center of gambling tourism along with Las Vegas and Reno, reimposed an indoor mask mandate last week. Publicly available data shows a high degree of spread, and less than half of state residents over the age of 12 are fully immunized.
Several counties in California, including Los Angeles and Sacramento, have also reinstated the wearing of masks. Neither county has infections at the rate at which the CDC says mask wear should be mandatory for those vaccinated, nor does the general condition, but California now encourages the use of face coverings at the same time. interior for everyone.
The rate of COVID cases relative to the population is higher in Florida, where 61% of the population is now vaccinated, than anywhere else in the country. Governor Ron DeSantis has said “no to restrictions, no to warrants”.
Dr Taison Bell, assistant professor at the University of Virginia and director of the AVU’s medical intensive care unit, said he saw a link between “high tourism, lax approach to mitigation measures public health and low immunization rates “. He said Florida falls into this category.
“It’s hard to put domestic travel back in the bag once you let it out, because so much of our economy depended on it,” Bell said.
“The previous variations, what we were doing worked, but delta is clearly different and we need to change our strategy,” he said. Bell recommended that unvaccinated people be quarantined for 14 days after traveling to an area with high transmission and vaccinated people who have traveled to one of those areas. get tested if they have COVID-like symptoms.
Anyone who spends time with others indoors or in close contact outdoors for long periods of time in high transmission areas should be tested several days later, said Mara Aspinall, an advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation and professor at Arizona State University.
“If you are indoors with unmasked people, end your vacation, test on your way home,” she said.
“I think people who attend an event should test four days after they get home to make sure they don’t spread unintentionally,” she said. “Even if they are vaccinated.
The US Travel Association encourages vaccination and follows CDC guidelines. Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at US Travel, said stricter guidelines, such as a quarantine for those vaccinated, could be a “deterrent” from travel.
“These restrictions only create a patchwork environment across the country, where travelers just don’t understand what they can do, where they can go, what’s safe and what isn’t,” he said. she declared.
INCREASES COVID RISK
Missouri is also experiencing a high level of spread of the coronavirus, especially in areas near popular vacation destinations like Branson and the Lake of the Ozarks.
“While this may be somewhat speculative, we believe some spread is occurring in these communities due to tourism,” said Lisa Cox, spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health and Seniors Services.
Dr Rex Archer, who retired last week as director of health at the Kansas City Department of Health, reported that indoor concert halls in Branson, which is in a county with a rate vaccination rates below 30%, are an environment where it is easy for the disease to spread.
“We know what increases the risk – indoor exposure in crowded places where people are talking or singing,” Archer said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know the places where people don’t wear masks, especially in areas of the state where people aren’t vaccinated, you cause more disease. “
McClatchy’s Michael Wilner contributed reporting.