Staff Writer l Palladium - Jul 06 2021
Can We Travel Yet? An Interview with Palladium's Chief Medical Officer

Credit: Lukas Souza

As vaccines continue to roll out worldwide, individuals and businesses alike have begun to contemplate what the next phase in the ongoing global pandemic might look like. Leaving aside return-to-work considerations and masking guidelines, for many of us with dusty passports and family overseas, glimpses of the post-vaccine world present one very important question … can we travel yet?

Palladium’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Farley Cleghorn shared both his personal and professional insights on the debated topic. Born in Trinidad and unable to visit family there since Christmas of 2019, he notes that there is still almost no way to get there conveniently.

How big an issue is travel for US citizens and residents?

In short, huge. Today, more than 40 million people living in the United States were born in another country (the largest percentage in the world) and have family abroad, including developing countries.

What are the biggest concerns for those wishing to visit family abroad?

Given that we have been in various degrees of lockdown for the past 14 months and that undertaking international travel involves running a gauntlet of airline, country and locality restrictions in response to the pandemic, returning to one’s country of birth or other family location is a messy business.

For me, if I was to go visit family, I would need to go through an application process with a long waiting list in order to receive an approved exemption to travel from the government there (the country is currently in lockdown once more). Assuming approval, I would then wait for a seat on a chartered flight out of Miami. When I get there, I need to quarantine in a state-supported centre (or approved hotel at my own expense) for at least 14 days or 10 days if vaccinated (I was fully vaccinated with Moderna by 30 January, 2021).

How about getting back to the US?

To return to the U.S. I need to get on a similar list for a seat on an outbound flight (there are domestic flights between Trinidad and Tobago with similar considerations, as islands have discrete borders) and show a negative PCR test to re-enter the US. My vaccination status does not make a difference currently.

What about the risk of travelling?

While we can say the coronavirus risk on airlines themselves has been reduced to an acceptable minimum, the wisdom of such travel (even if one wishes to undertake the above steps) is in question. Airports, by definition, involve concentrations of people.

Again, considering a trip to Trinidad, with most of the population yet unvaccinated there, there are questions of whether I am increasing their risk through the very small possibility of taking the virus there. Trinidad is not tourism-dependent, but most of the small islands of the Caribbean are, and many have rolled out programs to reopen for tourists since they are threading the needle between risk and devastation to their tourist economies.

So more than simply “is it safe?”, the questions become what is the balance for a responsible visitor, particularly one born there, who want to be supportive and see their family members?

And to those questions, what are your thoughts?

Firstly, to vaccination, only a very small number of citizens in Trinidad have been vaccinated thus far, a form of global inequity. Since I work in an international development organization, we have suspended international travel except for emergency purposes, each of which is individually approved. I apply the same guidelines that we adopted for our staff to personal travel. The balance should clearly be to some concrete benefit or urgency and not just because we miss family or wish to have a break. Full vaccination with an approved vaccine is a basic requirement.

My personal recommendation for those who feel the need for a change in scenery is to do a domestic trip to a part of the USA where risk is low and where they can enjoy the great outdoors. Keep doing those Zoom and other video calls with family and support each other until it is safe and convenient to travel abroad again.

While it may not be the response that those of us with family abroad, and itchy feet, were hoping for, vaccination rollout globally remains unequal – and with that inequality, and associated inequities, the question of travel has no simple answer.

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