Traveling During COVID-19: How Two Offices Combined Their Expertise to Properly Advise FNL in the Heat of a Pandemic

By Reed Fliegel, WHK student intern, Partnership Development Office
A masked person, in silhouette, looks at a cell phone beside a window on an airplane

Photo by Daniel Norris (Unsplash)

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Especially in the medical world, it’s far more effective and, often, more convenient to avoid an ailment entirely rather than to treat it. Occupational Health Services (OHS) at Frederick National Laboratory (FNL) has long championed this ideology, but the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 posed new challenges for prevention, especially for employees traveling.

OHS is responsible for providing medical treatment and advice to prevent the need for treatment. For years, they’ve counseled FNL and NCI staff about precautions against yellow fever, malaria, and a host of other diseases prior to travel.

A New Pandemic Landscape for OHS

When the pandemic took the spotlight of public concern and nearly shut down the nation entirely, OHS staff members were presented with questions they simply hadn’t faced on this scale before. Questions from employees about quarantine before and after traveling, the safest options for personal and professional travel, and areas where a mask should be worn poured in.

OHS rose to this challenge. However, they faced difficulty navigating this entirely new predicament. Sarah Hooper, OHS manager, said it was hard to give confident medical advice in a world where even the top minds were divided. At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Hopkins University, and individual states’ sites documented positivity rates separately, and there were often differences between their statistics.

A Shared Effort: Travel and OHS

“The Travel department jumped in to rescue OHS and provide consistent data across all platforms,” Hooper said.

The Travel department, FNL’s coordinators of work-related travel in “normal” times, created a document of consistently calculated COVID-19 information, updated daily, which quickly became a valuable tool for OHS. Danielle Siler, manager of Travel, described the department’s morning routine under the heat of the pandemic: by dividing the reporting agencies of all 50 states, employees’ common international destinations, and research institutes such as Johns Hopkins among the team, Travel was able to provide an updated resource for OHS to use in advising patients every day.

This resource covered nearly every COVID-19 measure imaginable, including case percentages, mask and quarantining policies, and the restrictions put in place by individual airline companies.

The creation of this “one-stop shop” resource, compiling COVID-19 statistics and information into one daily updated chart, allowed OHS to properly disseminate correct and confident guidance to their patients.

Looking forward, the pandemic is certainly not over, and there are still many questions to be asked regarding the safety of travel under COVID-19. Despite the difficulties presented as many states stop reporting COVID-19 information, the partnership between OHS and Travel has remained strong, albeit now on a weekly basis for updates.

As Siler phrased it, when it comes to presenting a resource that can properly advise travelers during the pandemic, “We’re going to keep doing it until the science tells us to stop.”


Reed Fliegel was a Werner H. Kirsten intern for the Frederick National Laboratory Partnership Development Office. There he handled assignments related to outreach about the office’s programs and contract options available to researchers. The Partnership Development Office establishes the partnerships and collaborations among Frederick National Laboratory scientists and external researchers in government, academia, industry, and the nonprofit research sector.