How I stayed safe on a recent trip to California

Two Abbott BinaxNOW antigen tests used by Betsy and her sister during their trip, demonstrating single-line negative results.

As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, I went on vacation during the last week of August. I traveled to California to visit my younger sister, who was living there over the summer for an internship. We spent a couple of days in the Bay Area, then drove to Southern California, hit a few different destinations, and finally flew out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Both my sister and I are fully vaccinated, of course, but we still took a number of precautions to make our trip as safe as possible in light of the current COVID-19 surge. I wanted to share what we did in case it’s useful for others thinking about travel right now.

Key precautions included:

  • Limited exposure and tests before traveling: For ten days before my flight out to California, I avoided all unmasked indoor activities, including small gatherings with fully vaccinated friends. Closer to my flight, I also avoided other activities outside my home (grocery shopping, taking the subway, and the like). I got a PCR test at a NYC Health site two days before my flight, and didn’t leave my apartment between that test and heading out to the airport.
  • Rapid testing every two days during the trip: I carried three packs’ worth of Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests in my suitcase, and bought a couple more packs in California. Starting two days after I arrived, my sister and I tested ourselves every other day. While antigen tests like these are more likely to give you a false negative than PCR tests, testing frequently increases your chances of catching a case—and catching it early in your disease progression, when you’re most likely to infect others. The tests were easy to incorporate into our routines, especially once we got used to the swabbing process.
  • Sticking to outdoor activities: Our trip included a lot of outside time: hiking in a redwood forest, hitting up Southern California beaches, camping for a night at Joshua Tree National Park, and lots of outdoor dining. The riskiest two activities of the week, we agreed, were an afternoon at Monterey Bay Aquarium and a day at Universal Studios in LA. But both of those establishments did a great job of reminding all patrons (including the vaccinated) to keep their masks on inside—following current mask regulations in the Bay Area and LA County.
  • Double-masking indoors: On both my flights and whenever I needed to be inside for a longer period of time, I wore two masks: a surgical mask and a fitted, multi-layer cloth mask. Studies suggest that cloth masks on their own are not the best option for protecting against Delta, but layering a cloth and surgical mask can increase protection. I especially like to layer masks because surgical masks typically don’t fit well on my face; when I add a cloth mask on top, the fit becomes much more snug.
  • Precautions when visiting relatives: My sister and I visited a few relatives over the course of our trip. For these visits, we basically followed the precautions that health experts recommended last Thanksgiving: eat outside whenever possible, mask up in common areas inside, open windows for extra ventilation, etc. We also organized the trip so that no visits occurred after Universal Studios, which we had deemed the riskiest activity of the week.
  • Extra testing after traveling: Flying out of LAX proved to be incredibly stressful, as neither the airport nor our airline put in effort to enforce mask guidance. My sister and I even gave extra masks to two fellow travelers at the check-in desk, because the airline apparently did not have any extras available. Because of this extra COVID-19 exposure risk, I did some extra testing upon my return to the East coast: daily rapid tests for two days in a row, followed by a PCR test.

Personally, this will probably be my last major trip for a while. Conferences that I’d planned to attend in the fall have been moved to all-virtual formats, and I’m lucky to live close enough to my parents that I don’t need a flight to see them for the holidays. If I were to travel again, though, I’d likely follow these same precautions—with adjustments based on COVID-19 infection rates at my destination. Also, I would probably avoid LAX.

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