I’m vaccinated — can I travel now?
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With COVID-19 vaccinations on the rise, people are thinking about traveling more than ever, whether they’re planning to visit family they haven’t seen since the before-times or making up for lost trips with friends.
While there’s still a lot to consider — from pandemic safety and general travel anxiety to when you’ll feel comfortable flying again — the question of whether or not you can travel again after you’re fully vaccinated keeps coming up. Here’s a look at everything we know so far, bearing in mind this is an ongoing situation.
Is it safe to travel after I’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine?
At the beginning of April 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidelines for those who have been fully vaccinated with an FDA-approved vaccine, stating that it is currently safe to travel within the United States.
If you do want to travel, the CDC says to wait at least two weeks beyond the date of your last vaccination before doing so, or if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, to get tested one to three days before your trip, wash your hands thoroughly and use hand sanitizer, wear a mask when you’re in public, and practice social distancing.
The scientific community seems optimistic now that the production of the double-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is in full swing.
“The real risk with COVID-19 is serious illness and the vaccines are highly effective at reducing serious illness with the virus,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an Epidemiology Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We are very encouraged that we now have three vaccines and that the J & J [Johnson & Johnson] product is single-dose.”
That doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet. Dr. Scott Weisenberg, Director of Travel Medicine at NYU Langone Health, says that while vaccines make travel safer in general, the risk of disease is not completely removed even if you are vaccinated.
“The risk to the traveler would depend on how much disease there is at the destination area, what they will be doing — particularly indoor activities in poorly ventilated areas — the consequences of infection (higher risk with older travelers and those with comorbidities), and the availability of healthcare at the destination if the traveler got COVID-19 while there,” said Weisenberg. “Travelers should consider seeing a travel medicine specialist to review strategies to reduce risk during travel, particularly to resource-poor destinations.”
The CDC now says the risk of spreading COVID-19 is lower if you have been fully vaccinated, but there is still a chance you can spread the virus. It’s still possible those with the vaccine could be putting those who haven’t yet been vaccinated in harm’s way by traveling.
“A traveler could spread the virus to the destination area, or spread it back to their home area after return,” said Weisenberg. “This risk will depend on how much potential exposure they have just before travel and during travel.”
Weisenberg still says he would feel comfortable traveling after being fully vaccinated, as long as he was going somewhere without a large outbreak. “Travel medicine involves weighing risks and rewards, whether you are talking about insect-borne infections, hiking in Nepal, or COVID-19,” he said.
CDC COVID-19 guidelines for fully-vaccinated people
On April 2, the CDC added new guidelines for those who’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine. Here are the three big updates for those who have been fully vaccinated and are interested in travel, quoted straight from the CDC:
- Fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to get and spread COVID-19.
- People who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine can travel safely within the United States:
- Fully vaccinated travelers do not need to get tested before or after travel unless their destination requires it
- Fully vaccinated travelers do not need to self-quarantine
- Fully vaccinated travelers should still follow CDC’s recommendations for traveling safely including:
- Wear a mask over your nose and mouth
- Stay 6 feet from others and avoid crowds
- Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer
That’s right, the CDC says that those who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine can safely travel within the U.S. The CDC considers someone fully vaccinated two weeks after they’ve received their last dose of the vaccine.
However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and some health officials continue to discourage nonessential travel because of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Walensky added that another surge of cases could come if everyone rushes back to travel before a larger percentage of the population is vaccinated.
In regards to international travel, the CDC says that going abroad “poses additional risks and even fully vaccinated travelers are at increased risk for getting and possibly spreading new COVID-19 variants.”
The guidelines around travel come just a few weeks after the CDC released its initial recommendations for those who’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine:
- You can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask.
- You can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household (for example, visiting with relatives who all live together) without masks, unless any of those people or anyone they live with has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
- If you’ve been around someone who has COVID-19, you do not need to stay away from others or get tested unless you have symptoms.
- However, if you live in a group setting (like a correctional or detention facility or group home) and are around someone who has COVID-19, you should still stay away from others for 14 days and get tested, even if you don’t have symptoms.
The CDC still advises taking precautions for those who are fully vaccinated, like avoiding medium or large-sized gatherings and wearing a mask in public.
How could other coronavirus variants impact me when traveling?
As new SARS-CoV-2 variants continue to emerge, most recently originating in Brazil, South Africa, and the U.K., more studies are being conducted to judge the effectiveness of available vaccines against them.
“Prior infection may not protect as well against some variants. It’s possible that vaccine efficacy could be affected,” said Weisenberg, adding that travelers could also inadvertently be responsible for transferring variants between regions or bringing a new strain back home with them.
Pfizer and BioNTech just announced that its COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the South African variant.
Will I spread COVID-19 if I have the vaccine?
Of course, the real question is whether or not it’s safe for others if you’re traveling after you’re vaccinated.
New studies show that fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to spread COVID-19 than those without the vaccine, according to the CDC. However, there is still a possibility that those who’ve received their vaccine can spread COVID-19.
“Some vaccinated people do get infected,” Dr. Paul Duprex, director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh told the New York Times. “We’re stopping symptoms, we’re keeping people out of hospitals. But we’re not making them completely resistant to an infection.”
I’m vaccinated, should I still wear a mask when traveling?
During a recent CNN Coronavirus Town Hall event, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had some sobering words for would-be travelers expecting a maskless future.
“Getting vaccinated does not say you have a free pass to travel, nor does it say you have a free pass to put aside all of the public health measures we talk about all the time,” said Fauci.
After explaining how immunity is at its strongest 10–14 days following the last vaccine dose, Fauci said masks should still be worn by vaccinated individuals until more studies can be conducted regarding transmission.
“We are waiting for better data to show how vaccination will affect transmission, but early data would suggest reduced risk of infecting others, but there would still be some risk. The question will be how much that risk goes down,” said Weisenberg in agreement. “Until we have better information on transmission, travelers should wear masks and practice social distancing when around others (particularly in indoor settings).”
What precautions should we take if traveling with or around unvaccinated people?
Because not everyone is vaccinated at this point, it’s best to keep rocking your favorite mask, maintaining your distance and thoroughly washing your hands until we know more, regardless of your vaccination status.
“Yes, it is relatively safer to travel but [it’s] important to maintain the basics of prevention, including mask-wearing, since we don’t yet know if the vaccines reduce onward transmission if a vaccinated person does get COVID-19,” said Beyrer. “The vaccines prevent serious illness but not infection.”
Do I have to quarantine if I have the vaccine?
According to the CDC website, fully vaccinated people who have had their last dose within the last three months and aren’t experiencing any symptoms don’t have to quarantine. It might actually depend more on where you’re going since some states like Hawaii and most international destinations have additional protocols in place, which might mean current rules about testing and quarantine remain in effect indefinitely.
The CDC recommends that after international travel, even if you’ve had the vaccine, you should get tested 3-5 days after getting home, self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and follow all state and local recommendations or requirements after travel. If you do have COVID-19 symptoms after returning from abroad, then the CDC recommends quarantine.
Will you need to get tested if you’ve received the vaccine?
The CDC’s new guidelines state that if you’ve had the vaccine but have been around someone who has COVID-19, you do not need to stay away from others or get tested unless you have symptoms. Although the CDC did state that “if you live in a group setting (like a correctional or detention facility or group home) and are around someone who has COVID-19, you should still stay away from others for 14 days and get tested, even if you don’t have symptoms.”
According to Weisenberg, it’s best to follow existing testing protocols unless the CDC and state public health departments say otherwise. Beyrer agrees.
“They shouldn’t, but many states in the U.S. and other countries are still requiring this,” said Beyrer. “The guidelines were put forward before vaccine access and are now dated.”
The CDC also requires those entering the U.S. to present negative COVID-19 test results or documentation of recovery “regardless of vaccination or antibody status,” so keep that in mind if you’re heading abroad anytime soon.
Will I need to provide proof of vaccination?
It certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep your vaccination card handy going forward, especially if you’re hoping to visit Australia — Qantas recently announced its new requirement for international passengers to show proof of vaccination — or any other countries thinking along those lines.
“I would expect travelers to have to carry documentation of vaccination, particularly if there is stronger evidence that vaccines reduce transmission of old and new variants,” said Weisenberg.
Several countries currently require you to show proof of a yellow fever vaccination to enter, so if you think of it that way, it’s not unreasonable to expect something similar for COVID-19.
Do I need a vaccine passport to travel?
While a vaccine passport would help organize travelers’ vaccination records digitally — IATA’s Travel Pass is a similar idea — there are some arguments being made against them. According to a recent Washington Post article, the World Health Organization says vaccine passports highlight inequities in vaccination availability worldwide, with vaccines being prioritized for wealthy Westerners over older and poorer residents throughout the Global South.
The article also points out that more studies need to be done to determine the role transmission plays between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated before such passports can really be useful for travel.
The CDC’s new guidelines say that it is safe for those who are fully vaccinated to travel within the U.S., but officials still urge caution as COVID-19 cases have again begun to rise.
Still, you should follow the CDC guidelines and stay home if you can, or at least continue to wear your mask over your mouth and nose in public, wash your hands thoroughly and stick to socially distanced vacation venues if you must travel during a pandemic.
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