It’s been over a year since the World Health Organization named COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, a global pandemic — a year largely defined by people staying put in their homes, cities and countries alike.
But now, with widespread vaccinations on the horizon and ever-building pandemic fatigue, it appears that Americans are itching to travel again. Last week, the Transportation Security Administration reported the highest number of air travelers — 1,357,111 — since March 15, 2020. And according to an Airbnb report released in January, 54% of those surveyed have either booked travel, are planning to travel or expect to travel in 2021.
“I think it’s going to become more and more of an acceptable risk for people,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician, told TODAY over Zoom. “What I’m speaking about is the way that people are going to psychologically approach this — not that there’s no risk involved.”
According to Adalja, some degree of risk will persist until America reaches herd immunity, aka when the majority of citizens are immune to the coronavirus through vaccination and prior infection. At the same time, more travel seems inevitable — so here are answers to all your burning questions about the state of travel right now.
Can I travel after I get the COVID-19 vaccine?
If you’ve received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, you’ll be 94% and 95% less likely to get seriously sick, Dr. Chris Beyer, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told TODAY back in January. Adalja said that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also a sound choice — while reported to be 72% effective, it’s 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death, and you can’t meaningfully compare efficacy rates across vastly different clinical trials that took place at different inflection points during the pandemic.
Still, Beyer emphasized the distinction between being protected from the virus and being able to protect your community from the virus.
“It is certainly going to be safer to travel once you’re immunized, but on the other hand, we also do not know the answer to the question of ‘Are people who have been immunized still infectious for others?’” he explained.
While Adalja predicts that data will soon show the vaccine’s effectiveness in eliminating asymptomatic carriers, it’s best to remain cautious until that data emerges. This means continuing to practice social distancing, avoid crowded places, wash your hands and wear a high-quality mask when traveling, even if you’re fully vaccinated.
“Let’s remember there can be vaccine failures. We still don’t know for sure whether asymptomatic spread is possible in vaccinated people,” Dr. Colleen Kelley — an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine who is involved with the Moderna and Novavax vaccine clinical trials — previously told TODAY. “We need some additional data before we fully understand the implications of the vaccinated person who is in a community where widespread transmission is still going on.”
Not only do certain destinations suffer higher transmission rates, but they also might contain new and apparently more transmissible variants of the coronavirus — like the U.K., Brazil or South Africa strains. Because researchers have yet to reach a definitive conclusion on the vaccine’s effectiveness against them, their existence is another factor that could make travel risky.
The variants, while international in origin, have been found in many American states. Experts predict that others will soon emerge.
“I think this is going to be an evolving situation… I do think the news so far is positive, but we don’t know everything that we need to know yet,” said Kelley. “It’s too early to say completely, absolutely, that the vaccines are going to be effective against the variants that we’re hearing about, but I would say this early data looks good.”
For U.S. citizens, what does traveling abroad look like?
According to Airbnb’s report, the majority of those surveyed would prefer to travel domestically or locally, whereas only 21% have their eyes on an international location. This makes sense: Adalja explains that in 2021, the new variants and the differing pace of vaccination from country to country will continue to make globe-trotting difficult.
“International travel occurs now with quarantines and testing, and I think that’s going to be the case for some time until the world gets to generally the same place,” he said. “Until we get to some higher level of vaccination in the domestic population, as well as other countries’ own domestic populations — they’re still going to be pretty restrictive on who they let in.”
By “quarantines and testing,” Adalja refers to the myriad of restrictions and requirements that travelers must take into account. As of January, the CDC requires anyone returning to the United States by air to take a viral test (either antigen or nucleic acid amplification, aka NAAT) no more than three days before their flight and present the negative result at the time of boarding — regardless of where they’re coming from.
Moreover, most countries open to U.S. passports have their own coronavirus measures in place. Neglecting to follow them exactly can lead to a vacation that’s wasted away in quarantine. Getting the right kind of test (FYI: Most countries don’t accept antigen test results) and making sure the results come back within the right time frame is crucial.