(The Hill) — Falling coronavirus case levels and the absence of major restrictions might lead many to assume that this holiday season could be the first “normal” one seen since the start of the pandemic, but experts and stakeholders foresee another COVID-19 winter as the specter of the pandemic refuses to dissipate. 

National COVID-19 cases have held at low levels since a July peak fueled by the BA.5 omicron subvariant, with the weekly number of cases currently standing at about 261,000. Hospitalizations and deaths have similarly continued to trend downwards. 

Cases could, however, rise again as temperatures drop, vaccination rates stagnate and countries across the Atlantic experience a surge of their own, which has routinely foretold what will happen in the U.S.

“I wish I had a crystal ball,” Lin Chen, director of the Mount Auburn Travel Medicine Center and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told The Hill. 

“In the U.S., our cases have been declining overall, but then there are areas where the virus detection in a wastewater is increasing,” Chen said. 

A quarter of the roughly 800 U.S. wastewater sampling sites that have available data have seen increases in virus levels, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Chen further noted that countries in Europe and Asia are currently experiencing upswings in COVID-19 cases. Throughout the pandemic, the U.S. has routinely followed pandemic ebbs and swells that occur in Europe, though the trend is not a strict predictor due to differences in community immunity.

People generally feel more comfortable going out in public thanks to the wide array of coronavirus treatments and vaccines that have been made available, Chen said, leading to more confidence in traveling. 

Domestically, there are currently no U.S. states that are enforcing travel restrictions, according to Kayak. There are currently 192 countries and territories around the world that do not require COVID-19 vaccines or quarantines for incoming travelers. 

Though travel has picked up throughout 2022 as people move past their COVID-19 wariness, travel and tourism stakeholders are not yet anticipating a return to the same levels that were seen before the pandemic began. 

Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president for public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, told The Hill in a statement, “This year, sixty percent of Americans plan to travel, and airlines are preparing for a robust fourth quarter to meet that demand.” 

NYC & Company, the official tourism marketing organization for New York, released projections earlier this month estimating that 6.5 million people will visit the city between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. 

If these projections end up being accurate, New York City in 2022 will see 85 percent of the visitors it saw in 2019.

For those who are planning to travel for the holidays, particularly if they are planning to go overseas, Chen advised that they use high-quality masks and stick to activities where there is good ventilation. 

International travelers should also make sure they are knowledgeable of where they can seek medical care if they should need it while away from home. Even though many countries no longer require tests, Chen recommended self-testing before they leave for their trip and also before they return home. 

If they should test positive, she said the trip should be delayed so people can avoid being “stranded somewhere and also to avoid transmitting to other people along the way and at the destination.”

While much of the general public is taking fewer precautions in regard to COVID-19, Chen said that people who are at a higher risk of severe illness should stay on their guard.

“Those people who are older, have a comorbidity, have underlying health issues, have immune suppression — I would say they are probably the ones that need to take even more precaution just because other people are letting up or easing up on their precautions,” she said. “They have to probably assess more about whether this is a good time to travel or wait until things ease up again.”

“There is no health authority like WHO or CDC that has officially announced that the pandemic is over because it isn’t. And so, I think I think we have to still take precautions,” said Chen.