Every week, the CDC updates its list of countries that should be avoided due to COVID-19.
— Despite the guidance, some travelers are still visiting or planning trips to level 4 countries.
— Experts advise against travel during the latest COVID spike but say cases may trend downward soon.
Just weeks before Shelby Kalma left for Germany and the Czech Republic in late December, federal health officials issued a red alert warning: avoid travel to both countries due to COVID-19.
The guidance didn’t stop the Tacoma, Washington, resident and her husband, and they spent three weeks in Europe. The trip was a last-minute decision, but the couple was itching to travel and the two countries allowed them in with proof of full vaccination.
“It was a risk we took,” Kalma said. “In our heads, COVID’s not going anywhere. Tomorrow’s not promised. For us, it’s like — do we live in fear or do we keep putting our dreams aside because of the pandemic?”
She’s not the only one. Every week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates its list of countries that should be avoided due to COVID-19 risk. After nearly two years of living in the pandemic, travelers are ignoring the agency’s guidance.
“There are a lot of people in this country who don’t feel confident in CDC messages,” Mark Dworkin, professor and associate director for epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s school of public health, told USA TODAY.
Is travel to a level 4 country safe?
The CDC says it’s best to avoid international travel unless fully vaccinated, and offers specific guidance for each country based on COVID-19 levels.
The agency looks at new case rates and new case trajectories when deciding which risk level to assign. For a larger country to make level 4, it must have a “very high” risk of COVID, with more than 500 new cases reported per 100,000 people over the last 28 days.
Level 4 is the highest category, with more than 100 countries as of Tuesday. Only 19 countries were categorized level 1.
But with COVID-19 cases within the United States surging just as much as level 4 countries, just how dangerous are these destinations to U.S. travelers?
“It’s a little silly to say ‘Don’t travel to ‘fill in the blank,’ Paris or Buenos Aires or wherever, when you have the same risk,” said David Weber, a professor of medicine, pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Virtually every area in the U.S. is now the highest risk rate that the CDC has. … I think if you’re going to go to New York, you have the same risk as going to Paris.”
Because air travel poses a low risk of infection due to the planes’ filtration systems, Weber said a traveler’s actions while abroad have the most impact on their likelihood of contracting the virus.
Dining maskless indoors, for instance, or chatting with people outside of their bubble can increase the risk of contracting COVID. A travelers’ vaccination status and mask usage also play a role in how protected they are from the virus.
Should I travel right now?
While there are ways to mitigate risks, health experts advise delaying near-term travel plans.
Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at Texas’ UTHealth school of public health, suggests avoiding unnecessary travel — domestic or international — since the world has yet to recover from the omicron surge. The U.S. reported more than 782,000 new daily cases on average as of Jan. 12.
“If (travel) is not necessary, wait until the wave calms down a bit,” Jetelina said. “The U.S. is in a very high transmission area, and we want to try and decrease spread. One way to do that is to decrease travel.”
Nina Harawa, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees that it is “wisest not to travel,” but said she understands why people are traveling nearly two years into the pandemic.
“There’s this strong desire for people to return to everyday life, and travel for many people is a part of that,” she said.
Travelers weigh the risks
Kelly Landaverde of North Carolina was supposed to visit Italy with her boyfriend this month but pulled the plug on the trip after the CDC bumped Italy to level 4.
Landaverde, a social worker who works with HIV- and AIDS-positive clients, wanted to avoid any chance of carrying the virus to her clients. Still, she was disappointed when she had to cancel yet another trip.
“I love traveling. … I didn’t realize how important it was to me for my sanity until we got locked down,” she said. “I probably could wait, but what suffers and what do I balance? Do I balance my mental health or do I balance my physical health? How do I go about doing this and not seeming selfish?”
In the end, the couple decided on a trip to Mexico. Landaverde plans to find a secluded area where she and her boyfriend can enjoy the beach while social distancing.
The country is currently a level 3 destination, with the CDC suggesting travelers are fully vaccinated before entering the country.
“That was kind of the deciding factor,” Landaverde said. “At level 4, it’s like OK, do not go. … A level 3 is kind of like, ‘We caution against it, but it’s not really forbidden.’ So I’m like, OK, that’s the yes. I’m going to go ahead and do this.”
Other travelers, like Cori-Anne Bonfilio of Orlando, are hoping their destination’s COVID-19 risk level drops by the time their flight takes off.
Bonfilio plans to go to Rome this March to celebrate her younger sister’s birthday. She has some concerns about the COVID risk in Italy, but has found reassurance in travel blogs that say Rome has been “pretty empty.”
“I’m hoping that there’s some leeway in the guidelines,” she said. “I am hoping that it’s not as probable to contract COVID going over there.”
To be safe, Bonfilio is planning additional precautions that can help limit their COVID-19 exposure, such as limiting how much time they spend on buses. She said she’s not too concerned about catching the virus — she’s an essential worker who has already had it twice — but she doesn’t want to test positive and get stuck in quarantine in a foreign country.
“I’m still very paranoid about going,” she said. “I don’t want to get stuck in another country if I test positive. … (But) it’s not something that’s going to go away. We have to adapt to living with it, wash our hands, wear your mask. But I can’t sit home. I’m bored.”
With some experts predicting that omicron has hit its peak, travel may be safer by the time Bonfilio flies out in March. Jetelina noted that she’s “very optimistic” the omicron wave will settle by mid-March or April, right around spring break.
“I think that if you’re fully vaccinated and you wear a mask, you can certainly plan on traveling for spring break,” she said.
What are the current CDC level 4 countries?
As of Tuesday, the CDC’s level 4 included:
— Antigua and Barbuda
— Bosnia and Herzegovina
— British Virgin Islands
— Burkina Faso
— Burma (Myanmar)
— Cape Verde
— Cayman Islands
— Central African Republic
— Costa Rica
— Czech Republic
— Democratic Republic of the Congo
— Faroe Islands
— French Guiana
— French Polynesia
— Isle of Man
— New Caledonia
— The Netherlands
— North Macedonia
— Papua New Guinea
— Saint Kitts and Nevis
— Saint Lucia
— Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
— San Marino
— Sao Tome and Principe
— Saudi Arabia
— Sint Maarten
— South Africa
— South Sudan
— Trinidad and Tobago
— Turks and Caicos Islands
— United Kingdom
— U.S. Virgin Islands
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