Personal risk assessment the new normal for summer travellers

In the absence of mandates, experts say masks, vaccines and insurance can minimize health risks

N95 masks | Shutterstock Image

In addition to her research as one of Canada’s foremost experts on global policies and attitudes on fighting infectious diseases, Kelley Lee has seen firsthand the impact of loosened COVID-19 rules.

“I was getting on a flight the day that they [the United States] dropped their mask mandate [in April],” recounted Lee, Canada research chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University and leader of the international research group Pandemics & Borders. “And you can really guess who were the non-Americans on the flight – with the Canadians saying they were not taking their masks off while the American passengers were whooping.”

That incident, Lee and other experts say, illustrates one of the key concerns facing travellers this summer, as travel demand spikes following two-plus years of restrictions and shutdowns.

While some forms of mask and vaccine mandates remain in certain Canadian travel settings, the interconnected nature of travelling – which links Canada to jurisdictions where masks are no longer required – and the fact that COVID variants remain active mean that people wishing to travel have yet another worry to consider.

“I just got back from Europe, and I was never asked to show proof of vaccination anywhere, on any flight or anything like that,” said Michael Brauer, professor of public health at the University of British Columbia. “The virus hasn’t really gone anywhere, even though it appears things are ‘back to normal.’ So the more risks you take, the more likely you’ll get infected; that’s something to keep in mind.”

Within Canada, Transport Canada still requires passengers on planes to wear masks at airport screening checkpoints, during flights where people “cannot physically distance from others” or as directed by airline employees and in instances where public health orders are in place. For the most part, however, restrictions and mandates are in the purview of operators, according to the federal government.

In terms of vaccines, travellers with at least two doses of a vaccine can use the mandatory ArriveCan app to prove vaccination status at entry points into Canada. Random testing may take place at land crossings, although the Government of Canada has temporarily suspended mandatory random tests at airports.

Meanwhile, the latest COVID-19 variant – BA.5 – appears to be spreading quickly. According to the World Health Organization, recent data shows BA.5 accounted for 52 per cent of global COVID cases in late June, up from 37 per cent one week earlier. Officials also estimate the variant is responsible for 65 per cent of infections in the United States, although exact numbers may be spotty due to a lack of testing.

Brauer, however, said current evidence suggests people should not panic – especially if they are vaccinated.

“We don’t have a very good idea of how many cases there are right now because the testing, pretty much everywhere around the world, isn’t what it used to be,” Brauer said. “The infections are going up because the transmission is going up, but we are definitely not seeing big rises in hospitalizations or deaths.”

Lee noted, however, that she is concerned with the high transmission rate – even if hospitalizations are down.

“I know people think it’s only about hospitalizations and [intensive care unit] beds, but we need to be worried about transmission,” she said. “And the reason is because, as we increasingly understand, you can get the virus more than once. And there’s growing evidence that it really does leave in many people impacts, whether it’s long COVID or a dampening of your immune system.

“We also don’t know what happens if you become more susceptible to other viruses. We have an influenza resurgence expected, for example. How is that going to impact people [with long COVID]?”

Regardless, both Lee and Brauer agree that while governments continue to track COVID infections, the return of widespread lockdowns or quarantines will be extremely unlikely due to the general public’s lack of appetite for such things. Even mask and vaccine mandates are clearly on the wane, and, because of waning public demand, officials may be hesitant to reintroduce them.

So what does that mean for travellers this summer? There are things travellers and officials in the travel sector can do to ensure visitor safety, Lee said.

“I would not step on a plane if I wasn’t vaccinated or boosted,” she said. “While [vaccination] won’t necessarily protect you from infection, it will protect you from severe illness and hospitalization. You cannot eliminate the risk completely, but you can reduce it.”

Lee also noted that airport officials, especially given the large crowds that have appeared at terminals as travel resumes in earnest, should do more to ensure proper ventilation in bottleneck areas – security checkpoints, check-in counters, luggage pickup carousels – because the risk of transmission in these places increases exponentially given the presence of crowds in a tight indoor space. Avoiding crowded indoor areas also applies beyond transportation to spaces such as nightclubs at a traveller’s destination, Lee said.

There is another crucial aspect for travellers to consider: insurance.

“I would encourage people to make sure they have good travel insurance, because you often forget about that,” Lee said. “But if you were to fall ill during your travels, goodness me, you wouldn’t want to be stuck in some place where you have to pay cash for your health care.”

Brauer agreed, noting that the new normal for travel now is one of personal assessment: how much risk is acceptable and how to address such risks if they materialize.

“It’s up to the individual to decide their own risk tolerance,” Brauer said. “Everybody is different: Their age, pre-existing conditions, other people you are in contact with.… It’s about what you can do in high-contact environments, a number of which can occur when you travel.”

There is also the contentious issue of masks, and on that front, Brauer said the reality is that only a high-quality N95 or KN95 is going to help in a meaningful way.

“The time has long since passed where a cloth mask will do anything,” he said, adding that in many places, only 20 per cent to 25 per cent of people are wearing masks. “The only way to protect yourself is to wear a mask that really seals well.” •