The prospect of the pandemic in the United States continues to improve, with confirmed Covid-19 cases falling for the sixth week in a row and deaths falling in the last three weeks. But the spring break is on the horizon, leading to a potential increase in travel, which has public health experts worried about the consequences if people do not stay alert.
Anxiety over the spring break rises after a particularly gloomy few months, when the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths increased dramatically after the holiday season. And with more coronavirus strains circulating in the country ̵
“Any event that involves increased travel and people relaxing preventative measures is a problem,” said Amber D’Souza, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
D’Souza said patterns that have emerged over the past year show how much the path of the pandemic is driven by behavioral change. Since places e.g. Experiencing severe outbreaks, people typically respond by staying home, practicing socially at a distance, and wearing masks. But as the situation improves and restrictions are rolled back, many tend to become more relaxed, which may cause new outbreaks to increase.
“This is exactly what we saw after Thanksgiving and after Christmas,” she said. “It’s an ongoing cycle and an ongoing concern.”
Last March, the United States only just emerged as the new center of the pandemic, and states have struggled to limit the spread of the virus over the past year. On Sunday, the United States hit 500,000 Covid-19 deaths and blackened the number of deaths in any other country.
Although the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths has dropped in recent weeks, the United States still averages more than 1,000 deaths each day from Covid-19.
“Rates have dropped,” said D’Souza, “but they are still not what we would consider low. We are just much better than where we were a month ago.”
D’Souza said some spring breaks last year have led to local outbreaks, but the real impact of the spring trip may never be known because the data was not tracked nationally. Florida’s chief of staff, Ron DeSantis, was heavily criticized for refusing to close beaches last March, even as the coronavirus spread across the state.
This year, some officials are adopting new restrictions before the spring. Miami Beach imposes a curfew at midnight in the entertainment district, and alcohol is banned on the beach.
“If you come here because you think it’s a place to go, turn around or go somewhere else,” Mayor Dan Gelber told WPLG-TV on Monday.
At the same time, US airports report a steady increase in the number of passengers compared to last year, although the level of travel in the US is generally significantly lower.
Clayton Reid, CEO of travel marketing firm MMGY Global, said the rebound started last summer and is expected to continue.
“We expect a huge return to travel in the spring and summer,” he said, adding that leisure travel in particular is likely to increase sharply when vaccinations are available to more of the population.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised Americans to avoid unnecessary travel.
But if people intend to get out in the spring, there are ways to reduce the risk, says Dr. Joseph Khabbaza, a specialist in lung disease and critical care at the Cleveland Clinic.
“Across the board, it will always be safer to drive somewhere other than having to be at airports or bus terminals or driving with other people,” he said.
Outdoor experiences, such as camping trips and visits to state or national parks, are also less risky, he said. But regardless of destination, Khabbaza and D’Souza said, it is important to avoid large gatherings, wear masks and practice social distance.
“You will either be masked or find a place that is distant,” D’Souza said. “If you’re sitting at a crowded bar with a lot of people without masking, it’s definitely a possible source of transmission.”
D’Souza said she recognized people might be dealing with pandemic fatigue and looking for an escape, especially when the weather gets warmer, but she urged people to be careful and weigh the risks.
“If people don’t travel at all, that’s the safest thing,” she said. “But if people choose to travel, it’s about being smart about it.”