Many American travelers hope their COVID-19 vaccine will be a one-way ticket to normalcy, and in many ways, it will be—eventually.
President Joe Biden is pushing state governments to make every adult in the US eligible for a vaccine by May 1st, with a goal of getting America "closer to normal" by Independence Day. As the pace of inoculations continues to trend upward, this possibility looks increasingly plausible, leading more people to make future travel plans. But realistically, the return to normal will be a gradual process with ever-changing guidelines and no precise end date.
For vaccinated individuals with a severe case of wanderlust, this means navigating a complex and often confusing travel landscape. If the rules and regulations are bogging you down, here's all the latest information and guidance needed to make informed travel choices.
Is it safe to travel after I've been vaccinated?
'Safe' is a relative word, and risk assessment will vary from one person to the next. What's most important is basing travel decisions on scientific facts, local laws, and the impact you might have on other people.
"The CDC guidelines for vaccinated people do not currently endorse any travel at this time," says Dr. Sandra Albrecht, assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University and chief epidemiologist for the website Dear Pandemic.
Editor's note: On April 2, the CDC revised its advice to allow travel for fully vaccinated people.
The issue of travel has less to do with those who are vaccinated and more to do with everyone else. Dr. Syra Madad, an infectious disease epidemiologist and senior director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program at NYC Health + Hospitals, notes that "COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing the worst outcomes in terms of hospitalization, severe disease, and death." What's still uncertain is if vaccinated people can get infected and spread their infection to others.
Luckily, an increasing body of research shows that vaccinated people have a much lower risk of getting infected. "I'm hopeful this means we will be able to endorse travel as more of that research comes out," says Dr. Albrecht. Until then, travelers should proceed with caution. "Once you're vaccinated, you have much more liberty to choose what works for you," says Dr. Madad, "but you want to look at it from the lens of other people."
Read more: What countries can I travel to if I’ve had the COVID-19 vaccine?
Only 14% of the American population has been fully vaccinated, and most other countries are far behind. Vaccinated travelers make up a privileged minority and must consider the health and safety of those who are not yet inoculated.
"We know that being around fewer people, wearing masks, being in open air, and spending less time with people helps reduce the risk," says Dr. Albrecht. "Think about these different factors and try to incorporate them when you're visiting or traveling to other communities," she advises.
How do I prove I've been vaccinated?
All vaccinated Americans get a CDC card with information including their name, their inoculation dates, and which vaccine they received. This card is currently the best way to show proof of vaccination.
Fully vaccinated individuals should consider laminating their CDC card and keeping it somewhere safe to prevent loss or damage. If you do lose your card or need a replacement, go back to your vaccination site or call your state's department of health.
Read more: How to prove you've received the vaccine and can travel
Experts believe travelers will soon have access to a vaccine passport: an app that digitally stores your COVID-19-related health data. Digital vaccine passports like CommonPass and the IATA Travel Pass are currently being tested by the airline industry and will likely be available to the public in the coming months.
Proof of vaccination is not currently mandatory for travelers, but it can help avoid excess wait times once you get to a desired destination. In countries like Belize and Iceland, vaccinated Americans can forgo lengthy quarantines and dive headfirst into their itineraries.
Do I need to wear a mask on a plane?
"People still need to continue wearing masks on planes, at stores, or at any location where there is a high likelihood of being around unvaccinated people," says Dr. Albrecht. "We still don't know if vaccinated people can get infected or transmit the infection to others," she reiterates.
In January, President Biden issued a nationwide mask mandate for airports and interstate travel. This means masks are necessary on planes - even in places like Texas, Florida, or any other state where face coverings are no longer required. This rule is unlikely to change anytime soon.
If wearing a mask for a lengthy flight isn't an option for you or a travel companion, consider other transportation methods. "I have an almost-two-year-old who refuses to wear a mask," says Dr. Albrecht. "Because of that, air travel is just not something that's going to be in our future for now." Albrecht hopes to travel this summer and plans on taking a car so her child can ride mask-free.
Do I still have to socially distance from other travelers?
Yes. Fully vaccinated individuals should continue to stay at least six feet away from people who aren't members of their travel party. "You don't know who's vaccinated and who's not vaccinated," says Dr. Madad, "so it's always good to apply the precautionary principle and abide by the COVID-19 safe behavior guidance."
This rule can translate to avoiding crowds while waiting to board an aircraft, skipping a tourist site that seems too congested, or opting not to dine indoors at a packed restaurant. The CDC continues to recommend avoiding large gatherings, particularly when physical distancing isn’t possible.
Can I visit or take a vacation with someone who is not vaccinated?
According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people can spend time indoors with one unvaccinated household without wearing masks or social distancing. This is excellent news for people like vaccinated grandparents hoping to visit grandchildren who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.
If someone in the unvaccinated party has a high risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes or lives with someone who does, people should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Traveling with someone who isn't vaccinated is a complicated scenario with safety concerns that families and friends will need to assess themselves. Unvaccinated individuals remain more likely to contract severe cases of COVID-19 and spread the virus to others. They may also be subject to lengthy quarantines and other roadblocks that can turn planning into a logistical quagmire.
Dr. Albrecht plans to wait until her entire household is vaccinated before making future travel plans, thus avoiding the stress and anxiety of leaving home without protection against COVID-19.
How do I protect the destination I am visiting?
Travelers should respect their destinations by following standard COVID-19 safety measures like wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, and opting for open-air outings.
The CDC advises people to wait two weeks after their second vaccine dose before traveling—the amount of time it takes for the shot to provide complete protection. Testing is still an equally important part of the equation, too: travelers should get a coronavirus test within three days of departure and again post-travel. If you become symptomatic during a trip, quarantining is compulsory.
Protecting a destination also means considering if now is the right time to visit. "I would not want to go to a state that has high levels of community transmission and low levels of individuals who have been vaccinated," says Dr. Madad. "I certainly don't want to be part of the problem; I'd rather be part of the solution."
When considering international travel, Dr. Albrecht highlights the importance of protecting communities without reliable access to healthcare. "I would not want to be responsible for carrying an infection and spreading it to a population that doesn't have the resources for treatment, for hospitalization, and for vaccination," she says.
"I think we should all do what we can to be good citizens and take care of other people all around the world," Dr. Albrecht intimates, "and to do that means staying close to home—for now. If you do have to travel farther, be mindful about adhering to mitigation measures to protect the people that are not in your circle."
Where can I get more information?
For more digestible content on the coronavirus and other CDC guidelines, visit Dr. Albrecht’s website, Dear Pandemic, or follow @DearPandemic on social media. Check out Dr. Madad alongside Dr. Anthony Fauci in the recent documentary The Vaccine: Conquering Covid.
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