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September 2021    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 47, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Vaccinated and Wonder If itís Safe to Travel?

risks to consider and mitigate

from the September, 2021 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

So, you're fully vaccinated. Is it now safe to travel abroad to go diving? It depends on how much of a risk you're willing to take.

First, remember that the different vaccines give various levels of protection, ranging from <50 to 90+ percent, and some now require boosters later to maintain effectiveness. None promises 100 percent protection from catching COVID-19. What they do promise is that if you catch it, the symptoms should be less severe. A person infected with the Delta variant can, on average, spread the virus to eight or nine others; vaccinated people are just as likely to spread it as the unvaccinated.

And vaccination doesn't come with life-time guarantees: Researchers in the UK say they are seeing some waning of protection against COVID infections in double vaccinated people. The real-world study includes data on positive COVID PCR test results between May and July 2021 of more than a million people in the UK who had received two doses of Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine. But over the course of three months, the protection from Pfizer fell significantly. The UK is expected to begin offering some people a third COVID booster jab next month, but is waiting for recommendations from an independent advisory body called the JCVI, which is looking at evidence to support a decision. (BBC - 25 August)

PCR testing for COVID-19 is the gold standard for identifying positive cases. The test is required before you travel, once you arrive, and before return departure by most countries that allow visitors.

Undercurrent has reported cases of divers who had several negative COVID tests before their trips yet tested positive before embarking on a flight home; they were forced to go into extended local quarantine at their own expense, unable to leave for up to two weeks. Was it bad luck? It seems so.

Liveaboards

Liveaboard operators are full of good intentions, but their goal is to stay in business. As a traveler in the time of COVID, you are reliant on the good intentions of those around you, but there may be some whose philosophical approach to longevity may not mirror yours. For example, in the past, Undercurrent has reported incidents of crew members smoking next to gas containers (even open ones!), ignoring the risk of ciguatera poisoning by serving barracuda or other reef fish, ignoring a guest's computer thought to be too conservative, and other activities we might consider a threat. One would hope that the crew would follow the rules issued by their employers, just as you would expect the same from passengers. Still, you can't expect everyone to stick rigorously with anti-COVID routines.

COVID is an airborne virus transmitted chiefly by the exhaled breath of those infected. It can exist briefly on hard surfaces, but these days, regular disinfecting of surfaces is hailed as a theatrical exercise to improve public confidence rather than an important act of prevention.

In close confines with others aboard a dive vessel, especially a liveaboard, everyone is sharing pathogens. The operators can disinfect the vessel endlessly -- and many proudly use their vigilant wiping down and cleanliness to prove you are safe on their boats -- but they cannot stop their crew or passengers from exhaling. Furthermore, you can't verify or even presume that everyone on board is vaccinated, especially the crew in countries where the vaccine is in short supply. Of course, even vaccinated people can be infectious. And everyone on board won't be wearing a mask all the time -- the reports we receive indicate by the second day of diving, mask-wearing tapers off considerably.

Of course, mask-wearing has become a foolish political football, not only in America but in many Western countries. But not in much of Asia, where mask-wearing was always seen as an altruistic action to protect others, even from those suffering from a common cold.

Clearly, people who selfishly rally against mask wearing are not concerned about protecting others, so those of us who wish to be protected are at risk among these misguided and selfish folks. And if you're around people who wear little more than an improvised piece of cloth, like a bandana, for a mask, you're at increased risk. Your only option is to keep your distance.

It's essential to choose your liveaboard wisely. If there is a positive outcome from the tragedy of the Conception fire, it's that those vessels that pack passengers in bunks right next to each other have lost favor with the diving public. But no boat is perfect. You can choose a spacious vessel and book a cabin for single occupancy, but from where is the air from the air conditioning coming? So, avoid cabins below decks, get a deck cabin, and keep the door open to the prevailing wind while asleep.

Destinations

Australia and New Zealand (with fewer than 3,000 cases), along with many other countries, have simply shut their doors to incoming travelers. The UK has had around six million COVID cases reported, yet you can still visit. So, ease of access to a country is no safe guide to the risks involved, as the author and scuba industry veteran John Englander learned. He recently traveled to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which the CDC advises is only a moderate risk for travelers. Despite being fully vaccinated and taking all precautions, such as wearing a mask, John caught the Delta variant of COVID. He puts it down to removing his mask at an outdoor barbecue. A colleague traveling with him suffered more severe symptoms than he did.

What about other Caribbean destinations? At the end of August, the U.S. CDC advised against all but essential travel to Aruba, Cuba, Sint Maarten, the U.S.Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, with COVID-19 risk said to be "very high." The CDC also advised against non-essential travel to Belize, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Mexico's Caribbean islands. There is also a "Level 4 - Do Not Travel" advisory on the British Virgin Islands. For other destinations, the risk is moderate or less. (In the U.S., the Hawaiian governor has pleaded with tourists to stay away.) The situation is fluid. For up-to-date advice, check with the CDC website. Virtually all countries have their own quarantine and COVID testing requirements. A dive travel agent should be able to give you up-to-date advice.

Before you select your destination, refer to Undercurrent's independent reader reports and make a judgment based on the recent experiences of others. Then do what you can, personally, to reduce the risks by adopting a raft of measures. And keep in mind: you can neither pass nor be infected by COVID-19 while you are submerged in the ocean, meandering along, looking at the fishes.

For the latest in travel information, go to: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/noticescovid19

PS: If you catch COVID-19 and recover, the Divers Alert Network would like to hear from you. DAN is conducting a study on the long-term effects of COVID-19 on divers' health and fitness to dive.

https://tinyurl.com/4hzrjdbn/

- John Bantin

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