A COVID-19 particle in black against a turquoise background.
Illustration: PGN

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What you need to know

  • It is essential to wear an N95 or KN95 mask while traveling.
  • Take a rapid test as close to the time of travel or gathering as possible and delay your plans if you test positive.
  • It’s not too late to get an updated booster. Although it takes a couple of weeks to develop a full immune response, you can receive some benefit within a few days.

Celebrating with family and friends is an important part of the holiday season. But sickness from COVID-19, flu, and RSV poses a threat to this festive time of year. Besides getting vaccinated and boosted, there are several other precautions you can take to prevent infection, especially while traveling. So before you embark on your journey to see loved ones this winter, plan for how you’ll avoid illness.

Should I wear a mask while traveling?

Yes. Masking is most important in indoor public areas, crowds, and close-contact situations—all of which you will likely come across while traveling. Even if there is no longer a mask mandate for public transportation, airports, or airlines, you should still wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask. The CDC recommends masking indoors on planes, trains, buses, and boats, as well as at transportation hubs, such as airports, stations, and seaports.

Are masks effective against COVID-19, flu, and RSV? 

Masks prevent the spread of all kinds of germs and viruses, including COVID-19, flu, and RSV. For the best protection, wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask, such as an N95 or KN95. Cloth masks only block about 10 to 30 percent of virus particles, but they are still better than no mask. Make sure there are no leaks around your mask and that your hands are clean before touching it. It’s safest to throw out your mask after using it throughout a travel day.

Is it too late to get an updated booster to be protected for the holidays?

It typically takes around two weeks after receiving a vaccine or booster to develop a full immune response. But early data has found that people can gain some benefit as soon as a few days after receiving a shot. So, no, it’s not too late to get an updated booster. In fact, you should get one, as well as your flu shot, as soon as possible. 

When should I take a rapid test before and after traveling or gathering?

You should take a rapid test as close to the time of travel or gathering as possible. Rapid tests are very accurate in telling if you are currently infectious, so taking it the day of travel or gathering is most useful. If you do test positive, you should delay your plans.

To check if you got infected during your trip or event, take a rapid test five days after getting home. If you develop symptoms before then, test immediately and take a second test 48 hours later to avoid getting a false negative. If you do not have symptoms but have been exposed, take three tests, each 48 hours apart. You can now order four free at-home COVID-19 tests and potentially get more free tests through your health plan or through community health centers or certain pharmacies. 

What else can I do to avoid sickness during the holidays and keep my loved ones safe?

No single layer of protection is 100 percent effective, but know that the more precautions you take, the more likely you’ll be able to safely celebrate the holiday season with loved ones. If you stopped masking over the past few months, consider putting your mask back on in indoor public areas now that COVID-19, flu, and RSV are all circulating. If you plan to see individuals who are immunocompromised or at high risk, consider limiting your social activities in the week leading up to travel or gathering to reduce the chance of getting sick. Everyone’s goal should still be to avoid infection, as long COVID remains a very real risk, even if you are vaccinated or boosted.