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Traveling for the holidays? Kansas City health professionals have tips to keep everyone healthy

Travelers wait in the security line at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security warned the state that it was freezing residents' access to Global Entry and similar programs, citing a recent state law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses.
Nam Y. Huh
Travelers line up wearing protective masks indoors at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in December 2021. U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle voided the national travel mask mandate on Monday.

The trio of COVID-19, influenza and RSV make this holiday season especially tricky to plan for. What can you do to prepare if you plan to travel or be around large groups of people?

With the Winter holidays fast approaching, many are either set to travel elsewhere or host festivities with friends and family.

But with a “tripledemic” of respiratory illnesses overwhelming health systems, it can be daunting to plan around seeing large groups of people.

For the week ending Dec. 10, the CDC reported very high levels of flu activity in Missouri and Kansas. Across the country, the CDC estimates 13,000,000 Americans have come down with the flu this year.

According to the Kansas City Health Department, this year saw the earliest peak in flu cases in five years.

“This is one of the worst flu seasons we’ve seen in recent years,” said Juliann Van Liew, director of the Unified Government Public Health Department. “While you’re getting your flu shot, you can also get your COVID-19 vaccine or booster. It’s safe to get both at the same time."

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, cases popped up in August, a few months earlier than anticipated, and have hung around since. Cases appear to be trending down nationally, but infection rates remain high.

And after a lull in COVID-19 cases following a spike in June, the Mid-America Regional Council reported 215 COVID-19 cases per day for the week ending Dec. 3, a 31% increase in COVID cases from just two weeks prior.

Recalls of certain at-home tests and some shortages make preparations a bit more of a challenge. So what can you do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe during the coming weeks? Here are some steps health officials and hospital leaders are recommending.

Early pandemic guidance still holds?

First and foremost, experts encourage people to follow the same precautions that worked at the height of the pandemic — washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes and routinely cleaning high-touch surfaces.

That also includes getting vaccinated or boosted.

A study released Tuesday by the Commonwealth Fund shows that in the past two years, the vaccines have averted over 3 million deaths in the U.S.

“There continues to be a lot of misinformation out there about the safety of the vaccine, about the efficacy of the vaccine – and this is one more good piece of data to support the fact that yes, the vaccines do help,” said Dana Hawkinson, chief infectious disease expert at the University of Kansas Health System.

Kansas City metro residents looking to get vaccinated can do so through their local health department or at some retail locations, like CVS and Walmart.

The Kansas City Health Department is offering the initial vaccine to those six months and older, as approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Moderna bivalent booster is authorized for those ages 6 and up, and the Pfizer booster is available for those 5 years and older.

What about testing?

Doctors are still recommending testing before any gathering with others, particularly if you are experiencing COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms or will be around people at high risk for serious illness.

Every household in the U.S. can now order four more free COVID-19 tests from the government at covid.gov. Several locations around the Kansas City metro still offer public testing as well.

Tests are also available at many retail locations, but you should be mindful of using tests purchased in the summer months. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled more than 11,000 at-home COVID tests produced by Detect, Inc. earlier this week because they may produce a false negative.

These tests were shipped to customers between Jul. 26 and Aug. 26.

Currently, the FDA has approved more than 20 versions of at-home test kits.

What if I feel sick?

Experts say if you feel sick or test positive for COVID-19, the safest course of action is to stay home.

“With the increase of flu, RSV and COVID being seen in the area, we are encouraging those that are hosting holiday gatherings or traveling to not be around others if they are sick,” said Aaron Smullin, a spokesperson for the Platte County Health Department. “If ill, stay home until you are feeling better and no longer have a fever.”

Even if you feel well, Smullin urged special consideration around grandparents or other high-risk adults. These precautions include wearing a face covering, practicing social distancing and washing your hands.

For those looking for relief through Tamiflu, the local pharmacy may not have the antiviral flu medication in stock. But KU Health System still has Tamiflu on hand, and Hawkinson says other antiviral options can work as a substitute.

What are the best traveling practices?

If you are traveling, whether by plane or by car, many of the same precautions apply to those staying home and hosting, said Jennifer Schuster, a pediatric infectious disease expert for Children’s Mercy Hospital.

“It is important to wear a face covering, practice physical distancing and have good hand hygiene while you are traveling to your destination,” Schuster said. “It is important to get a flu vaccine this season, especially before traveling.”

Many communities are seeing COVID-19 case levels high enough that the CDC recommends indoor masking. According to the CDC, 13.7% of Americans live in communities with high community levels, and an additional 38.1% are in medium community spread areas.

Kansas City and the surrounding area, including Platte and Cass Counties in Missouri and Johnson and Wyandotte Counties in Kansas, are at medium spread.

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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