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  1. Life & Culture

Should seniors travel to and from Tampa Bay amid omicron?

The holidays are here. So is another variant.
The omicron variant of the coronavirus has some wondering if it's safe to travel for the holidays.
The omicron variant of the coronavirus has some wondering if it's safe to travel for the holidays. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2021|Updated Dec. 18, 2021

Darlene Peters was elated. She was going to spend Christmas with her sister and niece at their home in Carrollwood, after nearly two years apart. The holidays can be difficult for Peters, 69, reminding her of parents and siblings who died during winters past.

This year she was going to be by the water, in the sun and surrounded by people she loved.

But then she heard the news — a new strain of the coronavirus had been found just a few hours away from her home.

Peters lives in Michigan, a state that currently leads the nation in coronavirus hospitalizations. As recently as last week, it had the most new cases per capita in the country.

“The variant was a turning point for me, because it’s nothing to play with,” Peters said. “I’m highly susceptible. And people are not adhering to the rules on planes. The staff on the airlines can only do so much.”

The omicron coronavirus variant, first identified in November, has now been discovered in at least 30 states, including Florida, with its first known case in the Tampa Bay area.

It’s still early, but preliminary data suggest the omicron is significantly more contagious than any previous version of the virus. It also might be more resistant to vaccines.

The shots still appear to be highly effective at preventing severe illness from omicron, however. But people whose health may be more vulnerable — like the elderly — remain at increased risk of experiencing more serious outcomes from mild cases.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have labeled the omicron as a “variant of concern.”

The WHO recommended that adults 60 and older postpone travel this holiday season, serving as a sobering blow for seniors who were looking forward to reconnecting with loved ones.

Older adults are divided over whether they’ll journey to and from Tampa Bay this holiday. Should they travel, and if so, how can they proceed safely?

Weighing risk

The virus has proved to be particularly deadly for older adults. One in every 100 seniors in Florida has died of the virus, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of state health data.

Ten percent of Floridians who are 65 and older remain unvaccinated. Though breakthrough cases occur, the shots are highly effective at preventing severe illness from the virus.

Dr. Michael Teng, immunologist and professor of internal medicine at the University of South Florida, said context is key when determining whether seniors should travel. Teng said the delta variant — not just omicron — remains a serious concern, though.

The means of travel matters — as does the destination.

“If you’re going across town, to another part of the state maybe, in a private vehicle, it’s fairly safe,” Teng said. “You’ll be with people whose vaccination status you know.

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“Air travel is a little different, because you’re sitting in the tube next to a whole bunch of strangers,” he added. “Masks are pretty good source control, but they’re not 100 percent.”

Older adults traveling by plane should look at positivity rates in the areas they’re traveling to and coming from.

“If you’re a senior, even if you’re boosted, you probably don’t want to go travel in the Northeast or the Great Lakes region,” Teng said.

Assess your health

If it were his parents, who are both medically fragile, the virologist said he’d recommend they skip out on air travel this year.

“You have to judge your own risk,” Teng said. “If you’re 65 and you’ve been healthy all your life and you’re boosted, the risk is lower. If you’re 80 and you have asthma or congenital heart disease or kidney disease, getting infected has pretty severe consequences.”

Mario Farias, 64, and his wife skipped Thanksgiving and Christmas with in-laws in Baltimore last year.

This December, fully vaccinated and boosted, the St. Petersburg residents are making the trip.

“We haven’t seen them in a long time, so we really miss them,” Farias said. “The variant crossed our minds — we’re very cognizant of it, but we’re looking at the science of boosters and are going to take the chance. All our nieces and nephews have been vaxxed now, so we really feel pretty good about it right now.

“You still always have that little apprehension, because you’re getting on a plane with 200 or so people, and you don’t know what their state of health is,” he added. “But you gotta live, right?”

Peters, back in a suburb of Detroit, has leukemia and a heart condition. In light of her health complications, she canceled her holiday in Tampa Bay.

“The whole thing, if I can put it bluntly, sucks,” she said. “It can be a trying situation, but I’ve learned that I can protect myself. If God puts it on my heart that it’s not a right thing, then I don’t do it.”

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