Chattanooga area holiday travels bring trepidation amid COVID-19 omicron variant

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Planes sit parked on the tarmac at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on Sunday, December 19, 2021.

Gas prices are down, travel projections are up, but the fast-moving omicron variant has thrown a last-minute wrench into holiday getaway plans for some people.

"For probably over a year we had a cruise planned to Europe," said Endia Butler, who scrapped a trip down the Danube River through Germany, Austria and Hungary with her husband and in-laws this week. "The whole point of the trip was the Christmas markets, and with them closing we thought it wasn't going to be worth the money or the time."

Now they're considering a quick Christmas jaunt to Florida from Chattanooga, Butler added, but they're cautious about doing even that because they worry about exposing her husband's parents to a new variant of COVID-19 when they see them for New Year's.

"With omicron and his parents being elderly, we don't want to put his parents at risk," Butler said.

AAA has predicted brisk holiday travel across the country, with air travel levels tripling over 2020, but new worries about the evolving pandemic may dampen those numbers a bit, said Terry Hart, CEO of the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

"Based on the bookings for this week, they're definitely down compared to previous weeks," Hart said. "I think the reasons are twofold - one has to do with this new variant that's there, as well as business travelers are obviously not going out this week."

Hart added that travel numbers for December 2021 are clearly trending higher than in December 2020, when the number of people boarding planes in Chattanooga plummeted to 19,128 from 45,472 a year earlier. But news about the new variant is making it tough to predict the trajectory of this holiday travel season, he said.

"You just don't know what to plan for," he said. "Things start looking up, and then it plateaus."

The omicron variant of the coronavirus is drawing worldwide concern due to its unusually high number of mutations, which appear to help the variant better evade immune defense from vaccines, and because it's significantly more transmissible than the already highly contagious delta variant that ravaged the region in late summer and early fall.

Dr. Lisa Smith, who serves as medical director for COVID-19 services at One-to-One Health, said the precautions that protected people from the virus to this point - including vaccinations and effective masking in public places - will continue to protect them from getting dangerously ill from the newest variant.

Holiday travel trends

— More than 109 million people — an almost 34% increase from 2020 — are expected to travel 50 miles or more as they hit the roads, board airplanes or take other transportation out of town between Thursday and Jan. 2. That means 27.7 million more people traveling than in 2020, bringing this year’s numbers to 92% of 2019 levels.— Airlines will see a 184% increase from 2020.— The national average gas price of $3.30 is 11 cents less than a month ago and $1.09 more than a year ago.— Tennessee drivers are paying an average price of $3 a gallon for gasoline, which is 17 cents less than the 2021 high set in October.Source: AAA

"You get vaccinated and you get boosted, and if you get vaccinated and boosted, you are protected from severe disease," she said.

But people should also take measures to protect those who are particularly vulnerable to serious illness, as breakthrough infections occur among the vaccinated, Smith added.

"I think everybody should rapid test as they walk in the door to visit grandma," she said. "Omicron should be taken seriously because it's still the same coronavirus, it can still make you really sick, and all the data indicates that the viral loads are very high very early."

In November, the Thanksgiving travel season saw the number of people boarding planes jump to 37,224 from 19,904 the year before. But that was still considerably lower than the 47,505 who boarded planes in November 2019.

The Butlers have taken a rain check on their European cruise and are planning to make the trip in August. But it's hard to know what August might bring, Butler said.

"They're not doing refunds, but they apply it to next cruise, so we'll see," she said. "You just don't know. It feels never-ending."

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this article.

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