The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revised its process for issuing travel advisories, now reserving its highest "do not travel" advisory for very specific circumstances.
In a change marking the first major revision to its travel health advisories since November 2020, the CDC removed all countries from Level 4 status. Instead, the health agency will reserve that highest level, which also comes with a recommendation not to travel to the destination, for special situations.
The CDC said on its website those circumstances might include "rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case counts, emergence of a new variant of concern, and healthcare infrastructure collapse."
It will continue to assign countries Levels 3, 2, and 1 status, determined primarily by case counts over a 28-day period.
Why did the CDC change the advisories?
Since November 2020, the CDC has offered 4 levels of travel advisories based on the level of COVID-19 infection within various countries. Its rankings ranged from Level 1, indicating low levels of COVID-19, to Level 4, indicating extremely high levels of COVID-19.
When a country reached Level 4 status, the CDC had recommended Americans avoid travel to the area.
The advisories were based on case numbers per 100,000 people and at the height of the rise of Omicron variant cases, the CDC listed more than 130 countries at Level 4 status. Few had moved from that ranking since receiving their original designation.
Some travelers complained the advisories were unhelpful as they did not consider factors like vaccination rates, hospitalizations or the current status of the health care system in that country.
In fact, the United States itself had case numbers that would have qualified it for Level 4 status.
With these revisions to its advisories, the CDC hopes that travelers will have more actionable information to evaluate the risks associated with traveling, so people can make better-informed decisions about travel and enjoy relatively safe trips. If you plan to travel soon, you can look up your chosen destination on the CDC's website.
Once you see where your destination stands, here's how to interpret that information when deciding whether to travel.
What is a travel advisory?
The ongoing risks associated with COVID-19, particularly as new variants emerge, present challenges and uncertainties for travel. To make the experience a little less confusing, the Department of State has aligned its security travel advisories with the CDC's science-based Travel Health Notices to warn travelers about dangers and COVID-19 threats overseas.
Level 4 travel advisory
Level 4 is the highest alert where the CDC recommends Americans do not travel to the destinations.
This designation is now reserved for situations like a rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case counts, the emergence of a new variant of concern, and/or healthcare infrastructure collapse at the destination.
Read more: What you need to know about finding and paying for healthcare abroad
What countries are at Level 4?
Currently, the CDC does not have any countries listed at Level 4 status where it recommends people do not travel. You can check your destination's status on the CDC's interactive map.
The CDC recommends you do not travel to destinations at Level 4 status and if you do decide to travel, you make sure you are fully vaccinated.
Level 3 advisory
A Level 3 advisory indicates the country has high COVID-19 cases counts. You are advised to make sure you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines before you travel to a destination with this status.
If you are not up to date with your vaccinations, you should not travel to a Level 3 destination,
The CDC also says that if you have a weakened immune system or are at higher risk from getting very sick from COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, you should talk to your clinician about your travel plans and consider delaying travel to the destination.
Level 2 advisory
Level 2 places are considered "COVID-19 moderate" destinations by the CDC. Make sure you are up to date with your vaccinations before traveling to these destinations.
If you have a weakened immune system or are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, the CDC recommends that regardless of your vaccination status you speak to your clinician about any additional steps you should take before, during and after travel to protect your own health.
Level 1 advisory
Level 1 destinations are considered "low-risk" countries. People traveling to these places are asked to make sure they are fully vaccinated before travel.
What about cruising?
In light of the spread of COVID-19 onboard cruise ships, in the past the CDC also had also issued a travel advisory specifically for the activity of cruising.
However, in late March, the CDC dropped its advisory against the activity.
Should I cancel my trip to a Level 4 country?
The answer is up to you. Travel advisories are guidelines, not rules. You are still permitted to travel to these places, but if you choose to go to a country the government is advising you to avoid, you do so at your own risk. In some extreme cases—that is, countries where there is civil unrest, widespread violence and political instability—the Department warns that some consular services may not be available to you and advises travelers to "always have a contingency plan for emergency situations".
Read more: What do I do if my flight gets cancelled—and can I get a refund?
Will my travel insurance cover me in a Level 4 country?
It depends on your plan and provider. We asked several travel insurance experts for information on the impact travel advisories have on your insurance; find out how your health insurance covers getting COVID-19 while traveling abroad, and how to choose travel insurance that covers COVID-19.
How often do these advisories change?
The Department of State confirms it reviews and updates travel advisories "as needed, based on security and safety information."
Anyone considering heading abroad should read the entire travel advisory for their destination at Travel.State.gov; in addition to the destination's border restrictions and entry requirements—and stay up-to-date on local public health guidelines.
For more information on COVID-19 and travel, check out Lonely Planet's Health Hub.
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