Thanksgiving travel raises concerns for COVID-19 and influenza

University officials, including USC’s chief health officer, made several recommendations for faculty and students as the holiday season approaches.

With many students traveling to visit home or going on vacation for Thanksgiving break, health care professionals are raising concerns about potential spikes in COVID-19 and influenza.

Considering that the past two holiday seasons, most students were required to be masked, the risk of spreading infections is much higher this year, experts say.

USC Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman says that the tracked percentage of flu cases crossed over the threshold for the starting stages of an influenza outbreak  – rising from less than 1% to 11%.

According to Los Angeles County Health, cases have risen from 86 to 100 cases of COVID-19 per every 100,000 individuals in the last week.

Due to the highly contagious nature of the flu, Van Orman is “concerned about the post Thanksgiving, both COVID and influenza together” and stressed the importance of getting the flu shot to prepare for the holiday season.

“We’ve had influenza around for a long time,” Van Orman said. “But we still struggle to get everybody vaccinated who needs to be vaccinated, and depending on the year, 30 to 50,000 people die every year of influenza in the United States.” She said that many of those deaths are vaccine preventable, because they’re in people who did not get an influenza vaccine.

In an email sent out Friday morning prior to holiday travel from Student Health Information, Van Orman stated students and faculty can pick up COVID-19 testing kits from the Jefferson Lot and Pappas Quad testing sites, as well as the CSC desks in USC Housing and should test if they are exposed to COVID. She also urged students to get a flu shot and the updated COVID-19 booster and strongly recommends that people wear a high-quality mask when they are in indoor public settings.

As these numbers continue to rise, students have mixed feelings about the risk that Thanksgiving travel will bring to the USC community.

Mimi Geller, a senior journalism major, isn’t concerned about spending Thanksgiving at home because of the small group of people she will be celebrating with. However, she is worried about the risks she’s taking when traveling between home and school.

“I plan on definitely masking in the airports and on my way to the airport and things like that. But thankfully I got my flu shot, I got my booster. So I feel confident that I’ve done all that I can to make sure that I don’t get infected with RSV or COVID,” she said.

While Geller doesn’t know how many people are going to be taking the same precautions as her when traveling since masks are not required, only recommended in indoor settings, she believes that “people should pay attention to public health officials and listen to them when they say that you should maybe mask.”

On the other hand, senior psychology major Christina Merrifield, said she is not concerned about the increase in illness and feels that taking basic sanitary precautions is enough.

“People have to go see their families,” she said. “There’s certain cautions that people should take … to remain safe and not spread stuff. But to a certain extent, you can’t really totally control that without being isolated.”

Zachary Guan, a senior studying economics and data science, says one of the reasons that he’s not traveling home to China over break is to try and prevent getting any of his friends or family sick, in addition to the quarantine restrictions overseas. Instead, Guan is “choosing to travel to a place where there’s not a lot of people” over the break to enjoy the holiday without the crowds and health risks.

According to Van Orman, while the flu season is different every year, it historically appears during the winter from December to March. However, this past spring saw flu cases spreading widely, and Van Orman says she believes this is connected to the end of masking.

As of April 18, masks are no longer required on public transportation, even though the Center for Disease Prevention (CDC) still recommends that people continue to mask up. All major U.S airlines including American Airlines and Delta Airlines have since dropped their requirements and moved to “mask optional.”

Last year, all USC students taking classes in-person or living in a university residence were required to get the flu vaccine before November 1, in an effort to “help mitigate the potential simultaneous impact of flu and COVID-19 during the seasonal flu time frame in the fall/winter months,” according to USC Student Health.

In lieu of the same mandate this year, USC Student Health and USC Pharmacies organized “Vaxchella” last month to create opportunities for and encourage students to get vaccinated, both for influenza and COVID-19.

Schedule your COVID-19 booster and flu shot appointment today through USC Pharmacies.