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8 Questions Every Snowbird Needs to Ask During the COVID-19 Era

Health experts offer advice to retirees who migrate south for winter

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Each winter, over 30 million visitors typically flock to Florida to soak up the sun and escape the snow. Arizona, another popular wintertime destination, usually welcomes almost 10 million tourists between January and March. But this season, warm-weather havens will likely see fewer people sunbathing on their beaches and resting at their resorts as the coronavirus continues to circulate throughout the United States.

Among those seasonal visitors weighing travel plans are so-called “snowbirds” — retirees who migrate to warmer climates during the winter months and who are at higher risk for serious health complications if they contract the virus.

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"COVID is everywhere; there's no escaping COVID,” says Rebecca Acosta, a registered nurse, public health professional and executive director of Traveler's Medical Service. If it's cold weather you're hoping to escape, however, experts recommend answering these eight questions before you decide whether to stay put or head south this winter.

What are your individual risks?

Older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, meaning they are more likely to require hospitalization, intensive care or help breathing if they get sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

There is no specific age at which one joins this “high risk” category; rather, health officials warn that the risk simply increases as you get older. “For example, people in their 50s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 40s,” the CDC says. And “people in their 60s or 70s are, in general, at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s.”

Similarly, some chronic health conditions (including type 2 diabetes and heart disease) come with more known risks for COVID-19 complications than others. All this is to say: Before you commit to a trip, consider your own individual risks for COVID-19, and then decide whether you're comfortable traveling with those risks, knowing that the safer option might be to stay home.

"The main thing is really for people to think a little bit before they go. They have to consider COVID when they're making travel plans, whether it's for a weekend, a week or three months,” Acosta says. “That's the starting point.”

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What's happening in your destination?

Once you assess your own risk, it's time to familiarize yourself with a few key coronavirus trends in your planned destination. This information should be available on the local health department's website.

First, look at case counts over the most recent two-week period, says Syra Madad, an infectious disease epidemiologist and senior director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program Office at New York City Health + Hospitals. You want to see them trending downward, which would indicate less virus is circulating in the community. Next, check out the number of new daily cases per 100,000 people. “What we like to see is less than four daily new cases per 100,000 people,” Madad says.

Testing is another key area on which to focus. Look at the number of tests available in the community and the amount of testing that's being done. “If you're going to an area that has poor testing capability, then that is another indication that there may be much more virus spreading than being documented,” Madad says. Ideally, you want to see at least 150 new tests per 100,000 people in that particular community per day. “And then you want to make sure that the overall positivity rate in those tests is less than 5 percent,” she adds.

Finally, monitor hospital and intensive-care capacity in your destination to make sure the health systems are not overwhelmed, just in case you do contract the virus and get sick. This is especially important as flu season ramps up in the U.S., because “flu is competing against the same hospital resources as COVID-19,” Madad says. “It's the same beds, it's the same [personal protective equipment], it's the same staff. So if they get overwhelmed with flu, then obviously COVID is just another thing that they're [burdened] with.”

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How will you get there?

Another important factor to consider is how you're going to get to your destination. Is it better to fly? Or safer to drive? There's no clear answer, experts say; there are pros and cons to both.

One thing to think about when making this decision is the number of people you'll likely encounter on your journey. If you're flying, there are employees at the airport, passengers on the plane, and any public transportation riders or drivers you come into contact with on your way to the terminal. If you're driving, you'll be around others at gas stations, rest areas and restaurants — and this number increases with each stop you make.

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"These are all opportunities to come in contact with new non-household members, and it may increase your risk of contracting COVID-19,” Madad says.

People who drive typically have a little more control over their environment. Windows can be rolled down to increase ventilation in the car, and passengers can be limited to close contacts. “But if you're going to stop at 20 different places because your destination is 30 hours away, then it may not make sense,” Madad says.

If you choose to fly, research your options carefully. As Madad points out, “not all airlines are created equal in terms of their policies.” Most have mask requirements, but some are packing their planes more tightly than others, which makes social distancing difficult. Also, if the airline is serving food and drink, look into whether the service is staggered to minimize the number of people with their masks off at once. “That way, it's decreasing the risk [of contracting] COVID-19,” Madad adds.

Don't get too hung up on airflow and ventilation once you're on the plane. The CDC says “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.” However, when you're lining up to get on and off the flight, remember to keep your distance from others — and don't forget to pack the hand sanitizer.

"All those rules that we're supposed to do, you have to put into hyperdrive [when flying],” Acosta says.

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Will you encounter quarantine restrictions?

Several states and cities are asking or requiring visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, so be sure to factor these restrictions into your itinerary.

If your destination requires a quarantine, plan for everything you might need during the first two weeks of your stay, such as groceries, medications and household items — especially since you might not “have all the connections that you have in your own environment,” Acosta says.

You may be able to take a coronavirus test shortly after arriving in your destination to avoid a two-week quarantine — some airports are even administering them for a fee — but this varies from state to state.

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Are you healthy enough to travel?

Before you hit the road, connect with your primary care physician to make sure you're in good health and up-to-date on all the necessary vaccines and screenings for your age group, including the flu shot, Acosta says. (If you're wintering overseas, you may require more shots.)

"All the standard things that people should be doing in their life to stay healthy, they should continue,” Acosta adds. “It's prudent to make sure you're in good shape before you go.”

Your doctor can also help to answer any questions you have about your upcoming travel plans and may even be able to connect you with a physician or hospital in your destination.

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Where are the closest hospitals, health clinics?

Which brings us to the next point: No matter your age or your health condition, it's always a good idea to know where the closest hospital or urgent-care center is when you're traveling. You should also ask yourself whether you feel comfortable with the medical care in that area. If you've wintered in the same area year after year, you may already know the answers, but likely not if it's a new destination.

"Most of the big, major cities in the United States have pretty good medical care, but some of the more rural areas may not. So it depends where you are snowbirding,” Acosta says.

Make a plan for what happens if you do become ill while you are away. Choose a room that can be used to separate sick members of the household from those who are healthy, and draft a list of local organizations you can contact “in case you need access to information, healthcare services, support and resources,” the CDC says.

"We live in a time where you need to prepare ahead of time,” Madad adds.

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What about cleaning?

Whether you own your wintertime retreat or are renting something for the season, it's important to clean and disinfect the space often, so consider packing a few cleaning products for your journey.

That said, a thorough scrub doesn't mean other preventive measures can be abandoned. The primary mode of coronavirus transmission is still thought to be respiratory droplet spread from one person to another (from coughs, sneezes and talking), which makes social distancing, mask wearing and handwashing important tools for prevention, Madad points out.

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What will you do when you get there?

Do you have friends whom you plan to visit? Or will your winter be spent social distancing? The amount of time you plan to spend with other contacts on your trip should also factor into your decision, since the best way to avoid COVID-19 is to limit your exposure to the virus.

Also: Where will you spend your time? The advantage of traveling to a warm-weather spot is that you'll have more opportunities to be active outdoors, and “outdoor risk [for transmission] is much, much less,” compared with indoor, Madad says. However, she adds, even if you're outside, you'll still need to wear a mask and limit your interactions with others to minimize your risk for contracting COVID-19.

"Everybody wants to go back to this normal life, and it's very unfortunate because the virus is still widespread,” Madad says. “And now we're getting into the fall and winter seasons, which is putting everybody even at higher risk. So we just want to make sure people understand that we can't let down our guard; we want to make sure everybody's safe."

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