It’s often best to avoid traveling to places where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is high. But sometimes, this may not be an option. So what can you do to stay safe if you have to travel to a COVID-19 ‘hotspot’? 

Because of the emergence of the Delta variant⁠—which is more infectious than previous variants of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2⁠—many places in the United States and around the world are experiencing a high incidence of COVID-19 among the local community. While it’s generally a good idea to avoid traveling to such ‘hotspots’ in order to keep your own risk of infection at a minimum, sometimes the need for travel is unavoidable.

David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California explains what you can do to stay as safe as possible while traveling to areas with a high risk of COVID-19.

What does ‘high risk’ mean?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer tools that allow travelers to check the risk of COVID-19 infection within the US, while the US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Country Information pages offer details about the health risks and travel restrictions that apply to other countries.

The CDC offers a lot of data on COVID-19 across the US. One statistic that is based on the number of new cases and positive tests, is the level of community transmission. The four categories are low, moderate, substantial, and high. Check the area where you plan to travel in the US to see the level of community transmission.

What does it mean for a location to be “high risk” in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, though?

A busy Times Square street.
What does it mean for a location to be "high risk"? ©Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock

Dr. Cutler explains that “risk” can refer to a set of different considerations. “Several factors make assessing [COVID-19] risk difficult in various locations,” he notes.

“For one thing, are we talking about risk of infection, risk of illness, risk of hospitalization or risk of death?” He advises using reliable official sources, such as the CDC, to check these data.

“Very few countries have a higher risk of death from [COVID-19] than the United States,” says Dr. Cutler, “[s]o if you live here, almost anyplace else in the world you go will have a lower risk of serious [COVID-19].” 

When it comes to the US, though, he notes that “[a]nother factor complicating [COVID-19] risk assessment is how variable the rate of [COVID-19] can be from one state to another.”

Moreover, he says, “[t]hese so-called [COVID-19] ‘hotspots’ can fluctuate over time,” which is why people should avoid planning travel solely based on current COVID-19 rates at their destination in the hope that they will remain stable.

‘Take extra precautions’

The CDC already offers comprehensive guidelines for travel, both domestically and internationally. In summary, these are: 

  • Receive the full course of an authorized COVID-19 vaccine, if possible, before traveling
  • Wear a mask over the nose and mouth while using public transport, including planes, or if traveling with people who are not part of your household
  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
  • Keep a 6-feet (2 meters) distance from other travelers en route, or in public spaces at destination

While these basic precautions are important to stick to under any travel circumstances, Dr. Cutler also emphasizes that “[w]hen traveling to areas of high [COVID-19] incidence it is wise to take extra precautions.”

That is because “[e]ven those who are fully vaccinated can be susceptible to ‘breakthrough’ infections,” he explains.

Thus, he recommends using the safest masks possible—such as N95 or KN95—for protection, and opting for outdoor settings as much as possible, since the risk of transmission is somewhat mitigated by good ventilation. Another precaution to take, if possible, is “avoiding situations where there may be unvaccinated individuals,” says Dr. Cutler.

Should you take a COVID-19 test after traveling to a ‘hotspot’ area?

A negative COVID-19 test result is needed to return to the US after international travel. But should you continue to test after arrival?

“The practice of routinely testing after [international] travel is not currently recommended for people who are fully vaccinated,” says Dr. Cutler, though it remains a requirement for those partially vaccinated or who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine. Check the relevant rules before planning any trip.

However, the health expert notes, even those who are fully vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 should take a COVID-19 test should they develop symptoms consistent with this disease on their return from a high-risk area.

Moreover, “anyone who develops [COVID-19] symptoms after travel should isolate until they have negative test results,” says Dr. Cutler.

For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., CNE, COI. 

Read more: 
Healthline's Dr. Jenny Yu: What it means to travel "well" in a pandemic
What you need to know about finding and paying for healthcare abroad

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