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CDC says vaccinated people can travel, should wear masks

Travelers prepare to check-in for their Delta airlines flight at the Miami International Airport. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

Fully vaccinated people can resume recreational travel in the U.S. at “low risk” yet should still wear a mask and avoid crowds, according to new advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC released its long-awaited travel guidance Friday amid the accelerating pace of vaccinations in the U.S., even as more contagious variants threaten to ignite a new wave of COVID-19 cases and as millions of Americans hit the skies anyhow.

The guidance says that fully vaccinated people don’t need a COVID-19 test and don’t need to quarantine, when traveling domestically. For international travel, they don’t need a test unless it’s required by their destination country and don’t need to quarantine once back in the U.S., but should be tested before boarding a return flight.

However, the head of the CDC said at a press briefing Friday that she still recommends against nonessential travel — even for vaccinated people — but that the agency has a duty to update its guidance as more science becomes available.

“We know that right now we have a surging number of cases. I would advocate against general travel overall,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a White House briefing. “Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel; our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so. If you are vaccinated, it’s lower risk.”

She nonetheless held out the promise of travel in asking people to get vaccinated when they can. “We all want to return to the things that we love. Getting more people vaccinated as quickly as possible and taking prevention measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 is the path out of this pandemic and back to our everyday activities,” Walensky said.

All people, even if vaccinated, should still wear masks on planes, the CDC said. The agency considers someone fully vaccinated two weeks after their final shot.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, described the CDC’s new travel guidance as “a major step in the right direction” in a emailed statement. He said the CDC’s acknowledgment that vaccinations eliminate the need for testing and quarantine removes a key barrier to domestic travel.

The CDC is trying to balance its message — advising against travel while also announcing they considered it low risk.

“I do think that this is a bit of a messaging nightmare, unfortunately,” Katharine J. Head, director of the graduate program in health communications and an associate professor in communications at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, said Friday. “The message is, we’re not recommending travel, and we’re especially not recommending nonessential travel. But if you do have to travel, here are some guidelines.”

The CDC previously released guidance for what vaccinated people can do. It said fully vaccinated people can gather privately together without masks, or visit one un-vaccinated household — such as vaccinated grandparents visiting the home of a child and grandchildren.

However, it urged vaccinated Americans to keep wearing masks in public and to avoid crowds. At the time, the CDC didn’t change its travel recommendations.

The CDC still discourages “nonessential domestic travel” by those who aren’t fully vaccinated. Those people should get tested one to three days before travel, and again three to five days afterward. They should stay home and quarantine for seven days after traveling, or 10 days if they don’t get a test, the CDC says.

U.S. air travel has begun rebounding — 1.6 million people passed through TSA checkpoints Thursday, well above the 124,000 who did so a year before yet still below the 2.4 million from the same day in 2019.

COVID-19 cases have started rising again in the U.S., with 79,000 new cases recorded Thursday. Walensky warned this week that Americans can’t abandon mitigation efforts, saying she is scared of “impending doom” as a fourth wave begins to crest. More than 553,000 people have died of the virus in the U.S., amid more than 30 million cases.


© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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