Demand for travel reaches pre-pandemic levels as new subvariant emerges
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - A recent explosion in travel has thousands of people coming and taking off to new destinations from St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
“If you look at that total number of passengers coming, going, and then the connecting traffic, that puts about 40,000 thousand people a day through our terminal,” said Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. “So, it’s nice to see those kinds of numbers again.”
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported 120,000 outgoing passengers from St. Louis Lambert International Airport between March 13 and 18. In the last four days, 77,000 people went through TSA checkpoints.
“That was higher than 2019. Pre-pandemic,” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “So, it’s nice to see those kinds of numbers again.”
Hamm-Niebruegge attributes part of the recent demand to spring break travel, people feeling more comfortable traveling as COVID-19 cases continue to decline, and pent-up demand to get away.
“I think people feel like we need to be together. We need to have fun again; we need to realize that life is fun and the last two years have been challenging,” said Hamm-Niebruegge. “We’re hoping as we get to April, we see that business traffic really pick back up.”
St. Louis area travel agencies are seeing a similar rise in demand.
“We are basically back to pre-pandemic levels and, of course, dealing with getting things rebooked from 2020 and that sort of thing,” said Shannon Lichti.
Lichti is the founder of Limitless Planet, a boutique travel and event planning agency in St. Louis. Since 2004, Limitless Planet has been working with clients to customize independent travel and group trips across all seven continents.
“A few of our group trips are completely sold out and that’s amazing. We’re going to do a wine and food tasting tour in Italy this summer, a road trip through Iceland,” she said. “And we just got back from Cuba and Nicaragua.”
Yet, she told News 4 COVID-19 still presents some challenges when it comes to booking certain trips or making sure clients are aware of vaccination and or testing requirements for wherever they are traveling to.
“The continent of Asia is still not open so that’s kind of the last missing link,” said Lichti.
Infectious disease experts in the St. Louis region said that while travel is picking up, that does not mean life back to normal.
“But definitely better than we were,” said Sarah George, an Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases at Saint Louis University.
Meanwhile, a new COVID-19 subvariant, BA.2 is also picking up momentum. Experts believe BA.2 will eventually overtake the omicron variant (BA.1) as the dominant strain.
“It is here in the United States. It’s been here for weeks now,” said George. “But so far, fingers crossed we’re not seeing any increase in hospitalizations or people sick enough to need hospital care.”
Medical experts said people that are getting back to traveling and moving around should not be too concerned about BA.2 at this time, especially if you have been vaccinated, boosted or developed some protection after being exposed to the omicron variant.
“We do have 65 percent of adults in this country now fully vaccinated, that’s a reason,” said George. “Also, the original omicron was so infectious it probably infected most everyone it could infect and there’s probably some cross protection because these are closely related strains.”
“There will likely be other surges and then traveling won’t be such a great idea anymore. So, this is a good time to do some traveling,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock, Infectious Disease Specialist with Washington University and BJC Healthcare.
Babcock said aside from continuing to wear masks on public transportation and planes, and getting vaccinated, people can continue to be proactive about COVID-19 by knowing the trends on cases wherever their destination may be.
“There is variability within the united states and there’s certainly variability around the world,” said Babcock. “So, if you’re traveling internationally, you may see increased numbers in some areas, and you should be aware about what that is before you go.”
The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force is expected to have a briefing on the BA.2 subvariant Wednesday afternoon on their Facebook page.
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