Being a late learner, I came to understand the words “endemic,” “native,” and “introduced” only recently during travel abroad. Our naturalist guide had defined each of those terms when he described species of plants and animals in the geographic area we were visiting. He was not referring to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, even though that virus had been “introduced” and belongs to the SARSr-CoV species.
Our trip to Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands was fascinating. It came about last month after a different excursion to South America, originally purchased and planned for April 2020, was canceled two weeks before our departure when COVID-19 reached pandemic proportions.
With the advent of vaccines, boosters, and treatment to reduce the chances of severe illness from COVID-19, we now have more normalcy and the ability to travel safely. That’s not to say that COVID-19 should be left out of travel planning. Indeed, safety planning is a must for all sorts of developments, especially when undertaking long trips for whatever reason.
Due to having planned ahead, coping with possible COVID-19 infection and illness surprisingly felt like one of the more controllable aspects of our journey. Imagine arriving at the airport ready to begin the trip, only to learn that a magnitude 6.8 earthquake had occurred 12 hours earlier just 200 miles away from our intended destination! Then, imagine that a major cyclone had devastated and flooded the same earthquake-affected city where our flight from the islands to the mainland was to land.
Then, imagine that three of our seven airline flights suffered from lengthy non-weather delays that necessitated significant itinerary changes. Taken together, those unforeseen natural and human-made events were far less controllable and more worrisome than what we needed to do in 2023 to stay safe from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
What we could mitigate was the likelihood of catching COVID-19 and of getting really sick were we to become infected. To do so, we pre-planned and tried to be mindful of risks while away from home. You might consider following some of the strategies below:
• Be up-to-date with COVID-19 primary vaccinations and the latest booster for which you are eligible.
• Purchase trip cancelation insurance and travel insurance that covers emergency care and medical evacuation, especially when traveling internationally.
• Know the COVID-19 community level at your destination and follow recommendations for that level made by the CDC for every U.S. county and by public health authorities abroad (check the World Health Organization’s and U.S. State Department’s websites for health and safety advisories.) The VeriFLY smartphone app helps travelers store digital confirmation of COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, if still required, for ease in going to and from international locations.
• Place routine medications in their original packaging in carry-on luggage, and include several extra days’ supply. In consultation with your healthcare provider, consider bringing a filled prescription for additional medications that might be needed if you are at risk for medical problems like severe allergies or infections that could require hard-to-obtain antibiotics or antivirals. Also pack face masks, rapid COVID-19 tests, a fever thermometer, and fever-reducing oral medications.
• Mask and undertake a mini-quarantine one week before departure during which you minimize your interactions with people, especially in crowded indoor areas.
• Stay home if sick.
• Test if symptomatic, or if exposed to a close contact with COVID-19. Follow CDC isolation guidelines should you test positive, and seek early treatment (usually Paxlovid) if at high-risk for severe illness.
• Wear a well-fitting N95 mask to protect yourself and others, including the most vulnerable people you’ll be around, especially when in crowded indoor public settings, aboard public transportation, and in airports and other transit centers.
• Wash hands frequently.• If the climate at your destination permits, gather outside and frequent outdoor or open-air restaurants.
• Enjoy new experiences!
And if you’re curious, I learned that a native species is one that is found in a certain ecosystem due to natural processes like evolution or its having been carried there by wind or water. No human intervention brings it nor influences its spread in an area. An endemic species is a native species found only in a particular area, large or small.
That is because those plants and animals are highly adapted to surviving solely in that area, which may lead them to be at risk for extinction when conditions change. Introduced species are those that occur in an area where they are not native, but were brought there through human influence, either on purpose or accidentally.
Suffice it to say that, despite the risk of getting COVID-19 while traveling, I arrived home with many wonderful memories of giant tortoises, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and tree-like “opuntia galapageia” (a form of prickly pear cactus), all of which are endemic to Galápagos, and without having acquired or re-introduced the SARS-CoV-2 virus anywhere.
Barbara Hemmendinger, MSS, a member of the Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition and a retired family medicine educator, belongs to Let’s End COVID!