Rail passengers walk to the Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station on Nov. 25, 2020, the day before Thanksgiving. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) Holiday travel
Rail passengers walk to the Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station on Nov. 25, 2020, the day before Thanksgiving. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

If you must travel this holiday season, follow state and federal health guidelines to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from coronavirus infection.

Mona Conn drove by South Hills Village shopping mall in Bethel Park hoping she could make some Christmas gift purchases.

“I kept driving when I saw the parking lot was almost entirely full,” she said.

As a critical care nurse, Conn sees the severity of this latest surge of coronavirus infections firsthand. She also knows the worst is yet to come.

She supports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that say the best way to minimize the risk of infection is to stay home during the holidays.

“There are circumstances where people have to travel when they have a loved one that’s ill and they have to get there,” she said. “Or what we’re seeing in the hospital, unfortunately, is that people are trying to get to someone for an end-of-life situation, to be able to see them one more time. I totally get it.”

But if the visit is something that can be postponed, Conn said, “then you have to postpone it.”

Officials and health experts across the country are urging people to stay home for Christmas.

Hospitalizations across the United States are at an all-time high since the pandemic’s beginning, and more than 300,000 American deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, according to the CDC.

Despite warnings, a record number of people passed through airports during Thanksgiving weekend. Christmas may be no different, and healthcare professionals are preparing for more COVID-19 cases as travelers make their plans.

In anticipation of holiday travel, the Pennsylvania Department of Health updated its travelers’ guidelines earlier this month to require people over the age of 11 to produce a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for 10 days if they cannot or do not want to get tested upon their arrival or return to the commonwealth. This requirement does not apply to people who work outside of the state or return to the state within 24 hours.

Those traveling for medical or military reasons, in transit to another destination outside of the state, or needing to travel to comply with a court order regarding child custody are also exempt.

“The biggest concern is you’re not going to be able to localize or know where your contact is,” said Dr. Colleen Myers, of Pittsburgh. “So you could end up having it and spreading it without knowing it.”

She also said many people are grappling with understanding how the coronavirus can be called deadly, which is a problem.

Myers said people should not compare contracting COVID-19 with contracting the flu or with getting the common cold. “We’ve never really studied the common cold because there’s no death rate associated with it.”

Still, deciding to travel to see family at Christmas is emotionally-laden and complex and people consider a variety of reasons before they do go.

Conn is sympathetic and says getting tested before you travel will only increase the information you need to make the decision that’s right for you.

Check your destination’s infection rates and hospitalizations, too.

For people who will keep their holiday travel plans, Conn advised getting a flu shot before hitting the road or skies as she said some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar.

“At least you can protect yourself with the flu,” she said.

Conn also said to pack extra supplies like masks and stay in the car as much as possible until you arrive at your destination.

“You don’t necessarily think about all the touches you have in your day with different surfaces, your face, eyes, nose, mouth,” she said.

Hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is best, Conn said. Hand sanitizers can work when soap and water are not available, but they should contain at least 70% alcohol.

“And don’t just put a little bit on your hand and let it evaporate,” she said. “You have to create friction by rubbing your hands together, especially near your fingertips—the places that touch the most.”

Wearing your mask properly is as critical as ever, especially as noses run whenever people leave the warm environment of a store or home and walk into cold air.

“It has to be up and around your nose and mouth,” Conn said. “When you move it down to your chin, you’re spreading your mucus secretions from your nose down to your mouth and all over that mask. Washing it frequently is important too.”

Continue to take safety precautions when you arrive at your destination—even in the places you feel the most comfortable, like your family’s home.

“It’s hard when you’re with family because you want to take the mask off and you want to talk to people,” Myers said.

Staying diligent, for the sake of yourself and others, can be the best gift you’ll bring.