Should I wear a mask this summer?

UCalgary infectious disease experts share their views to reduce your COVID-19 risk this summer
 Masked people working at laptops
University of Calgary Files

For infectious disease experts at the University of Calgary, the recommendation is yes. You should wear a mask, especially in cramped indoor spaces with large groups of people this summer including planes, airports, trains and concerts.

On June 14, the Government of Alberta lifted its remaining COVID-19 public health restrictions and on June 20, the federal government lifted some pandemic-related travel restrictions, although the federal government (as of June 28) still requires people to wear a mask on planes and trains in Canada.

While we may breathe a sigh of relief as life gets back to normal, experts say we should remember — it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. In fact, as of June 23, the Government of Alberta reported that there were 587,890 COVID-19 cases in the province and 661 people in hospital with the disease.

With COVID-19 still circulating, what can you do to reduce your risk and ensure an enjoyable summer holiday? Cumming School of Medicine infectious disease experts Drs. Cora Constantinescu, MD, Craig Jenne, PhD, and Dan Gregson, MD, offer tips in this Q-and-A.

Q: Many restrictions are lifted, so is summer travel safe?
We are seeing fewer hospitalizations from COVID than last year. Though that means the societal burden has improved, you need to continue to take charge of your own personal risk as restrictions are lifted.

In fact, COVID infection rates are much higher year over year in the month of June. The difference this year is that vaccinations have changed the face of the pandemic: they’ve helped keep the severity of infection low, resulting in fewer hospitalizations and reduced stress on the health-care system. However, your need to calculate your own personal risk and adjust your behaviour in accordance with that.

Q: Should I wear a mask this summer if I’m traveling internationally?
A: No one wants to be sick with COVID-19 or the flu when relaxing at the beach or cycling through Europe, and you don’t want to be sick when you get home. So, masking on planes and trains is an opportunity to minimize the risk of ruining what might be your first cross-border vacation in a couple of years.

Masking not only protects you, but it also protects the broader health-care system and, perhaps most important, other vulnerable people — maybe your granny, neighbour or a family member that is immunocompromised, pregnant or an unvaccinated child under five.

Not only does masking reduce the likelihood that you might pass an infection on to a stranger during your travels, but it also reduces the chance you might bring the virus home from your travels, reducing the risk to friends and family who may not have travelled with you. Masking when travelling shows you are looking out for others.

Q: Is it too late to get vaccinated? Should I do it before I travel this summer?
A: Unvaccinated travellers face elevated risk of health complications from COVID infection, so it’s recommended to get vaccinated.

With every vaccination, you protect yourself and others from getting sick — that’s the most important thing. Hospitalizations are lower thanks to the vaccine. Two doses of the vaccine are not enough to prevent transmission, so if you can, plan for three doses before you travel. For those who are vaccinated, make sure to keep your vaccinations up to date.

There are benefits to vaccination and staying healthy that go beyond public health as well. You save yourself and the government money and add value by ensuring a healthier workforce.

Q: I’m pregnant. Is it safe for me to travel this summer?
A: Pregnant women with COVID can have significant severe outcomes for themselves and the baby. COVID in pregnancy can lead to hospitalization and intensive care stays for the mom but SARS-COV-2 also infects the placenta and has been associated with miscarriages, premature labour, stillbirths and neonatal deaths.

Since December of 2020, pregnant moms have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and now data from more than 185,000 women has shown this vaccine is safe in pregnancy and provides protection against COVID to the baby in the first few months of life. Although vaccinations are highly protective, they work best in a layered defence along with using a mask, even if fully vaccinated.

In addition to COVID, there are other travel-related health concerns, some infectious and some not infectious, in pregnancy. Pregnant women should talk to their health-care providers about their risks and see a travel clinic for information about infectious disease risks (such as Zika or malaria).

Q: I have young children who are not yet vaccinated. Is it safe for them to travel this summer?
A: Kids have paid a heavy pandemic price. As parents, we can still give them new experiences, have them be kids and help keep them as safe as possible from infections. There is a very large number of unvaccinated kids who have not had Omicron and Alberta is seeing a lot of kids in hospital with a range of respiratory infections. Around the globe, we continue seeing other infectious disease outbreaks in addition to COVID.

Having a sick kid at home is bad enough. Having a sick kid while traveling adds a whole new layer of stress. Keep kids safe by ensuring they have had their COVID vaccines if it is available for their age, and double-check that the rest of their vaccines (such as the vaccine against pneumococcus, meningococcus or measles, etc.) are up to date. This will help protect these members of our families from infection.

When in poorly ventilated busy spaces, children should be encouraged to wear a mask. Parents should also continue to offer hand sanitizer, and kids should be taught how to use it safely.

Q: Is there anything else I can do to protect myself this summer?
We need to be thinking about the next flu season and what significant COVID transmission in the summer and fall could mean. We don’t know what variants might be lurking this summer and fall.

Here are some reminders to help ensure COVID transmission is minimized in the community:

  • Get vaccinated and/or boosted if you have not already. Check your eligibility with a health professional.
  • Wear a mask while close to others in public spaces.
  • Wash and/or sanitize your hands well and often.
  • Stay home if you’re sick and test yourself for COVID if you can. If you’re using antigen tests, repeat testing maybe required with one study showing antigen tests done three times over multiple days may be required to reliably rule out COVID-19.

While we may all be facing COVID-19 fatigue, together we can create a healthy community and protect each other. Learn more about UCalgary and COVID-19 now.

Cora Constantinescu is a paediatric infectious disease specialist with the Vaccine Hesitancy Clinic at Alberta Children’s Hospital and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the CSM.

Dan Gregson is an infectious disease expert and associate professor in the departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Medicine at the CSM. He is a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.

Craig Jenne is an associate professor in the departments of Critical Care Medicine and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the CSM. He is a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and serves as the scientific director of the Snyder Translational Laboratory in Critical Care Medicine.