Turbocharged Thanksgiving Travel and New COVID Risks


The sea of ​​Thanksgiving travelers began to swell at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday as crowds snaked through check-in lines, waited for bags and piled up at the curb.

Airport staff made regular announcements about COVID-19 guidelines, sometimes calling out travelers who weren’t wearing masks: “You’re almost there, all the way up, nose, mouth and chin,” one said over the speaker.

Thanksgiving is shaping up to be the busiest travel moment since the pandemic began as people try to reconnect with friends and loved ones. An estimated 2 million people will be traveling through LAX this holiday, according to LAX spokesman Heath Montgomery, twice as many as last year but still down a million from 2019.

But the growing crowds also bring new corona dangers with them. While cases in California are declining, officials remain concerned about a potential winter surge as cold weather sends more people indoors and vacation travel picks up again.

“This virus, this disease, doesn’t take winter off,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week, noting that people should expect an increase in COVID-19 cases due to “an increase in the potential strain on our system.”

“I’m not saying this to upset people. I say that for no other reason than to compete with people,” he said.

“It’s still scary, but I’m fine,” said María Elena Sánchez, 21, who was preparing to board a flight to visit her father in Kansas for two weeks. “Now that other people are vaccinated, I feel better about traveling. People are more careful.”

Montgomery said Friday and Sunday will likely be the busiest days leading up to Thanksgiving, but the Sunday after the holiday is expected to top them all, with an expected 175,000 passengers.

“It’s still not at pre-pandemic levels, but it’s definitely the busiest since early 2020,” he said.

Despite last year’s dismal travel numbers, California was still heading for a brutal and deadly winter wave of COVID-19 that accelerated right after Thanksgiving.

Circumstances are different this year: More than 72% of Angelenos and more than 70% of Californians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to The Times tracker.

dr Robert Kim-Farley, a medical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, predicted a “small uptick, not something that could be big” due to rising vaccinations and some immunity from previous infections.

However, the possibility of transmission still exists — especially for the unvaccinated, Kim-Farley said. Cooler weather and more time indoors can increase risks. Additionally, LA County public health officials have warned that many people’s immunization protection is falling.

Kim-Farley also noted that coronavirus transmission is not uniform, and some states and localities are seeing higher rates than others. For example, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Inland Empire and Central Valley have increased significantly in recent weeks, straining local healthcare systems.

“People should be aware of one thing Where They travel to be a little more careful when traveling to a place with high transmission rates,” Kim-Farley said.

With more travel and holiday gatherings likely to take place in the coming weeks, “now is the time” for unvaccinated people to start thinking about getting their shots, he added.

Some parking spaces at LAX were already full on Thursday. Airport officials said passengers who want to park for the holiday should consider booking spaces in advance.

Matthew Reid, 29, came from New Jersey for a pre-Thanksgiving trip with friends. The group thought it wiser to gather a week before Thanksgiving so they could enjoy the holiday at home with peace of mind.

“Because of COVID-19, we are planning an easy Thanksgiving. We agreed it would be wise to keep things local,” he said.

Reid, a graduate student at Rutgers University, said he’s still cautious about COVID-19 and is generally sticking to guidelines and keeping gatherings small. But he and his friends are all vaccinated, so it’s a different feeling than last year when the fear was rampant.

“We huddled together last year, largely because there was no vaccine. There was a lot more fear,” he said. “You didn’t see anyone or go anywhere.”

For those who are unvaccinated, the most sensible thing to do is to “stay home or stay local,” LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a news conference Thursday.

“I think there are a lot of risks when traveling. We urge people who travel to only travel if they are fully vaccinated. It’s a recommendation, but it seems reasonable with so much transmission happening across the country,” she said.

Los Angeles isn’t the only place bracing for a wave of travelers — and a potential wave of COVID-19 — as transportation numbers across the state are also expected to surge.

The Transportation Security Administration forecasts that about 20 million passengers will fly during this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, more than double last year’s total. The numbers still won’t surpass the all-time high — about 26 million flew during Thanksgiving in 2019 — but they represent a significant increase.

Even smaller airports, like Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino, expect travel numbers to increase to near pre-pandemic levels, officials said this week.

And the motorists are also treated with the American Automobile Assn. An estimated 48.3 million Americans are expected to take to the streets during the November break, down only about 3% from before the pandemic.

Despite the risks, experts say there are steps people can take to protect themselves and loved ones during the holiday, including simple measures like washing hands, complying with federal mask regulations, following local vaccination ordinances, and wiping surfaces on airplanes and other high-contact areas . While not as reliable as lab tests, at-home COVID-19 testing can also provide reassurance in a pinch.

Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said gatherings where all guests are vaccinated are fairly safe, especially when everyone eligible for a booster shot has received one.

But gatherings where some people are unvaccinated – either voluntarily or because of age or other factors – are riskier.

“It’s really important that if unvaccinated people are going to be at the gathering, that the gathering has some guard rails, some safety precautions, so that other people can feel comfortable,” she said.

Some of these “guard rails” include smaller gatherings with fewer people or gatherings focused on outdoor activities like campfires.

“We might be a little rusty, but it just reminds us that you want your guests to feel comfortable and that everyone has the opportunity to politely decline the invitation,” added Althoff.

She also recommended that anyone planning to attend holiday gatherings limit their activities and exposure in the days leading up to it. Those meeting with people who are more at risk can also take a rapid test on the same day.

For some, being together this Thanksgiving is worth every effort.

“Last year I was worried, I was scared. I haven’t travelled,” said Sandra Villa of La Puente as she waited to check in for a flight to Minneapolis.

She looked around and saw that everyone was wearing masks and following the COVID-19 protection rules. That calmed her down, she said.

It’s her first trip to see her daughter and three grandchildren in Minneapolis, and it’s a much-needed vacation after two years of being locked at home.

Villa got her booster shots last week, and while she had some lingering safety concerns, she’s focused on what the next three weeks will bring to Minnesota: eating, enjoying her family’s company indoors, and contemplating the beautiful snow.

Times contributor Luke Money contributed to this report. Turbocharged Thanksgiving Travel and New COVID Risks

Russell Falcon

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