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Double masks, vaccines and airplane tickets: Safe travels in our COVID era

Double masks, vaccines and airplane tickets: Safe travels in our COVID era
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Like many residents of Florida, my parents are enjoying that state's beautiful weather and dining outdoors again, now that they have been vaccinated. 

Of course, they already had the COVID-19 antibodies from being infected last March, but vaccinations are a double layer of protection. Even so, as I continue to tell them, they, like all Americans regardless of where they live, should continue to wear double masks as a precaution and as a form of public cooperation, even if their risk of getting COVID-19 now or of spreading it to others is extremely low.

Unfortunately, too many officials are slow to see it this way, as our leaders keep moving the medical goalposts, as control is obtained through fear rather than through hope. How else can you explain the worst-case scenarios being floated regarding the new, more contagious variants instead of a daily acknowledgment that new case numbers continue to fall dramatically, down 39 percent since the beginning of the month? The seven-day average of new cases has decreased by nearly 64 percent since Jan. 12, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Hospitalizations meanwhile, have decreased to under 70,000 from their peak of close to 130,000 last month. Freeing up hospitals to take care of non-COVID-19 patients is a big part of what we need to be doing in health care and these dropping numbers are reassuring.

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Of course, we still aren’t out of the woods yet — but we are heading in the right direction, thanks to immune blockade (over 70 million people have likely had COVID-19 and developed antibodies) and close to 40 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine. This is certainly enough to slow the virus, even in the heart of winter when respiratory virus spread generally increases.  

Hats off to Dr. Mitchell Katz, head of the Health and Hospitals Corp. here in New York City, who set exactly the right tone recently when he said, “I also want to extol the efficacy of the vaccine. And I think it’s important that people understand that getting vaccinated really does matter and will bring us back.” Katz said he told his 98-year-old father and his 93-year-old mother that they could carefully receive visitors again — their older son and daughter — 10 days after getting the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I fully agree and am planning a trip to see my own parents.

Proof of immunity can be used to help us reopen our society and save what is left. The vaccines, added to natural immunity from those who had COVID-19, is clearly working. We can help continue that fight by not gathering, by physically distancing and by wearing two masks (surgical plus cloth) or a single tight-fitting mask, as a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study demonstrates this combination is decreasing viral spread between two people by up to 96 percent. 

But we also must stop being controlled by fear-messaging before it is too late to reverse a lot of the damage. New York City, for example, remains a ghost town; snow birds like my parents and many others might not recognize it today. Almost everything remains closed, there are piles of garbage bags on every street corner, and there are more rats now than I remember seeing before. There is finally talk of some restaurants and sporting events reopening, but I am sure that many businesses have closed for good.

There also is talk of screening travelers with COVID-19 tests before domestic flights — but I strongly believe that immunization cards should ultimately take the place of that. After all, the latest research shows that being vaccinated against COVID-19 decreases viral load and decreases transmission of the dreaded virus; much more research on this crucial issue is ongoing. In the meantime, however, screening tests before travel would be imperfect in any case, because of a significant number of false-negative results. You have to be tested at the right time, and asymptomatic patients often test negative with the rapid-screening tests.

Like so many Americans, I hope to be able to visit my parents and other family again soon, and I am sure politicians and the media will catch up with the science eventually — but, until that happens, I shouldn’t have any trouble finding a flight.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, "COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science."