Hi, I’m Dr. Jenny Yu, Healthline’s Medical Expert and Lonely Planet Travel Health Expert. Welcome to my column, where each week I’ll share stories and insights, experiences and opportunities, and perspectives on how you can take the "well" traveled path in your journeys. 

The news of the Omicron variant, now detected in several countries, has the world reeling in uncertainty again. With borders closing and more restrictions in place, it gives us pause to think about travel and gathering together. More information regarding this variant will be available in the days and weeks ahead. My advice is that we should not panic, but rather be reminded of what has worked so far - vaccinations, masks, and hygiene. 

Booster shots can be an important tool in the fight. Studies have shown that the immune protection offered by our current vaccines wanes after so many months. A booster is recommended for all individuals who are older than 18 years of age. 

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Outdoor walk-up vaccination centres like this one in Washington DC are open throughout the US  © AFP/Getty Images

While we are still trying to understand this new variant, having more immunity offers better protection. Data suggest that a mix-and-match approach offers similar benefits as obtaining the same brand booster as your initial dose or doses. A mix-and-match strategy is particularly effective for those who have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson or the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, to be boosted by an mRNA-type vaccine such as the Pfizer or Moderna. 

For those who have had a previous infection, the vaccine is still recommended. Hybrid immunity (previous infection + vaccination) offers better protection than previous infection alone.  

Our immune system is complex. Different combinations of immunity - vaccinations with a booster, previous infection - will reduce transmission and disease severity. Now, our race is to vaccinate the world so that we can stop the spread. 
 

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Travelers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) arrive at Melbourne airport this week © William West /Getty Images

Answering your questions on boosters, face masks and more

We know that you have questions as we all deal with continued uncertainty. We crowd-sourced the ones below from our social channels and hope the answers are helpful to you as you consider your end-of-year plans.

Question: Other than getting the booster (if we can!) and masking up, is there anything else we should do to make flying/crowded airports safer?
The booster, in light of the Omicron variant, is more important than ever. If it is available, I would advise it, prior to traveling. Paying attention to our basic hygiene is another way to stay safe - washing our hands, not touching our face, wiping down high-touch surfaces such as the armrest, seat tray, etc. 

Question: What should I look for when deciding what type of face mask to wear on a train/plane?
Fit is the most important factor when deciding on a mask. Look for a mask that can wrap around your entire lower face so that it covers your nose, mouth and chin. For people with a wider face, a kf-94 type mask offers the most coverage without causing discomfort. Medical masks such as N-95 and others with multiple layers offer better protection as well. 

Question: How can we be safer indoors when most people won't be masked up?
Good ventilation and air circulation can decrease the risks indoors when most people are not masked. If your risk tolerance is low, it would still be good to mask when others are not masked. Having some protection is better than none. 

Question: Should I attend large family gatherings with young unvaccinated children?
It depends. The safest scenario would be that all the adults are vaccinated, and the children have tested negative prior to the gathering. If there are unvaccinated adults, it may be safer to gather outdoors, or use testing as a safer strategy to be together.

Question: My child has her first dose of the COVID shot but not the second - is she safe to be around holiday gatherings with family members? 
A first dose offers some protection, which is better than none. If all of the other family members are vaccinated, then the risk of transmission is very low. If there are unvaccinated family members, it may be a good idea to test prior to gathering. 

Question: How soon before and how long after travel should I do a test?
Testing requirements continue to change country to country. However, most require a negative test within 72 hours of travel and 2-4 days after arrival. The testing after arrival would pick up any exposure during travel. 

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

You might also like: 
Healthline's Dr Jenny Yu: On returning to travel
Healthline's Dr. Jenny Yu: What it means to travel "well" in a pandemic
How will Europe's new COVID-19 restrictions affect your travel plans?

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