What does the CDC change mean and how should people assess the risk of international travel? What precautions should they take and how can they best prepare for a trip? Are there specific considerations for those who want to resume sailing? And what about domestic travel, especially in the colder months?
To address these questions, I spoke with CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also the author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
On October 11, 2011, Japan began accepting visa-free vaccinated visitors from 68 countries through the arrivals hall of Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, ending nearly three years of tighter border controls.
Toru Hanai/Bloomberg/Getty Images
CNN: What does it mean that the CDC is no longer maintaining country-by-country Covid-19 travel advisories?
During the pandemic, the agency also stratified countries based on their level of Covid-19 infection. This was to help people planning travel to understand the extent to which Covid-19 was circulating in various parts of the world and for travelers to avoid non-essential travel in areas experiencing increases in coronavirus.
However, there was some concern about the travel advisories. Not all countries kept accurate or up-to-date numbers. At different points in the past two and a half years, there have been many parts of the United States with higher rates of Covid-19 than countries in the CDC’s “avoid non-essential travel” category. Also, after vaccines became widely available in the United States, there was a growing sense that the main determinant of risk should no longer be based primarily on coronavirus levels, as long as the vaccines protected people from hospitalization.
This CDC decision does not mean the agency will stop tracking Covid-19 entirely. CDC will alert the public if a new relative variant appears. It would also mark whether countries are so affected by the coronavirus or other diseases that their health infrastructure is overwhelmed. But infection levels alone are not going to lead to increased alert levels in the future.
CNN: How can people assess their risk of international travel?
Wen: The key question is asking if you are up to date on your Covid-19 vaccine, which means you have received the new bivalent booster. If so, you are very well protected from serious illness from Covid-19.
Your age and the presence of underlying medical conditions are also factors. Those who are immunocompromised should ask their doctor if they are eligible for the preventive antibody Evusheld. People over 65 and people with chronic illnesses should also ask, before a trip, whether they would be eligible for treatments such as Paxlovid and/or monoclonal antibodies if they contract Covid-19 abroad. If so, these are additional considerations when planning your trip: Will the location where you are going have these treatments available? If you become seriously ill and require hospitalization, is good health care easily accessible?
Finally, remember that the main purpose of coronavirus vaccines is to protect against serious illness. They also reduce the risk of infection compared to unvaccinated or unstimulated individuals, but do not prevent it completely. Those who wish to reduce the risk of infection should take extra precautions, such as wearing high-quality N95 masks or equivalent in indoor environments such as airports, train stations, restaurants and other crowded places.
CNN: What precautions should travelers take and how can they best prepare for their trip?
Wen: Again, getting vaccinated with the new Covid-19 booster is the first and most important step. Be sure to get vaccinated at least 10 days before your trip. You should also get a flu shot. The flu vaccine can be given at the same time as the Covid-19 vaccine.
Bring plenty of coronavirus tests with you, at least two for each family member traveling. That way, you can test if you have symptoms or find out that you have significant exposure.
Find out which treatments you can opt for. Some doctors may be willing to prescribe you Paxlovid in case you get Covid-19 on your trip. Others may not, in which case they know what treatments they would receive if the coronavirus were to end. Have a plan for how to access treatments.
Do pharmacies require a prescription or can you walk in and get Paxlovid? Are there reliable, high-quality hospitals in case you get seriously ill? And will your insurance or other coverage cover the costs of health care in another country? Travel insurance is generally a good idea, although not all policies cover delays or cancellations due to Covid-19, so be sure to check.
Also, find out what the rules are for each country you’re going to. Many countries have lifted vaccination and testing requirements, but they are still in place in some.
CNN: Are there specific considerations for those who want to resume sailing?
Others may decide on different modes of international travel. A cruise where thousands of people associate freely without masks is very different from, say, a beach vacation somewhere where all meals are outdoors, or a self-catering trip where you mask up in indoor environments like trains and museums. Those who wish to continue to avoid the coronavirus can choose a more cautious approach as they continue to travel.
CNN: What’s your advice for domestic travel, especially in the colder months?
Wen: The key recommendation to be up-to-date on vaccinations still applies, as does my advice to get plenty of tests and know what treatments you would get and from where.
We have entered a point with Covid-19 where we recognize that this virus is going to be with us for many years. That means taking advantage of the many tools at our disposal to protect ourselves, while returning to the pre-pandemic activities we love, including travel.