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May 18, 2023

Health Officials End COVID Testing Requirement For Travelers Entering U.S.

Health Officials End COVID Testing Requirement For Travelers Entering U.S.

Federal health officials lifted their requirement for air travelers to test negative for COVID before entering the United States, according to the Biden administration. Testing before flying is still recommended but is no longer mandated as of midnight on Sunday, June 12. The White House says effective COVID vaccines and treatment options have made it possible to roll back the rule, which has been in place since January 2021.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will reassess its decision after 90 days, taking into consideration disease activity and any new variants that may emerge over time.

The highly anticipated move is welcome by airlines anticipating a resurgence in so-called “revenge” or “carpe diem” travel in the coming months. Following more than two years of missed milestones, cancelled plans, and postponed getaways, soaring gas prices and rising airfares may not be enough to keep millions of Americans at home.

It seems vacations are back—even though COVID cases are also back on the rise.

As of June 7, about 42 percent of Americans live in an area where community transmission of the virus is “medium” or “high,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The agency also reports that a subvariant of Omicron, called BA.2.12.1, is now dominant, accounting for most new cases. Early evidence suggests this variant may spread and evade immune defenses even more easily than its predecessors.

Will this latest surge complicate summer travel plans? What can travelers do to avoid infection or spreading COVID to others?

First let’s consider some facts and how this summer differs from the previous three:

More Americans have been infected, vaccinated—or both.

Around this time last year, less than half of the U.S. population eligible to receive a COVID vaccine was fully immunized. As of last June, about 66 percent of adults had received at least one shot and nearly 46 percent of people age 12 and older were fully vaccinated.  Fast forward to June 9, 2022, 66.7 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. And nearly 71 percent of those eligible to receive a COVID vaccine—people age 5 and older—are fully immunized. Another 119 million boosters have also been doled out.

Meanwhile, roughly 84 million Americans have been infected with COVID and recovered— possibly bolstering the wall of protection among the population (albeit temporarily) with hybrid immunity, or vaccination plus natural immunity from a previous COVID infection.

Still, about one-third of Americans remain unvaccinated and research also suggests protection from COVID due to infection and/or vaccination wanes over time. To be sure, pockets of vulnerable people remain in parts of the U.S. and around the world, but overall, there is more immunity among the population than there was a year ago.

Healthcare providers have more tools to fight COVID. In January 2021, doctors had few ways to manage COVID and these tools were in short supply. Now, there are antiviral treatments, monoclonal antibodies, and long-acting antibodies that can help infected people from becoming seriously ill. In fact, Pfizer’s antiviral COVID pill could help reduce the risk of hospitalization or death by 89 percent. COVID testing is also more accessible than before. There are now free testing sites at 21,500 locations around the U.S. and more than 480 million at-home tests have been made available to Americans by the federal government.

A different COVID variant is fueling the latest surge. Last summer’s wave was driven by the Delta variant, which was more contagious and more severe than any previous variant at the time, or the original COVID strain. By December 2021, Omicron outcompeted Delta to become the dominant strain in circulation. The current rise in new infections is due to a descendent of Omicron, which also spreads more easily than Delta but typically results in less severe disease.

Masks are no longer mandatory. For many months, health officials have recommended the use of face masks help prevent the spread of COVID. But a federal judge in Florida has since struck down the CDC’s January 29, 2021 mask order. As of April 18, 2022, masks are no longer required on public transportation, like planes and buses, and at transportation hubs. Other restrictions on indoor dining, events and gatherings have also been rolled back.

Given these facts, what can you do to protect yourself and your friends and family—without missing out on your summer plans? Here are some steps to take before you hit the road, take off, or disembark:

Get immunized if you’re not already up to date on your COVID vaccines. Getting vaccinated remains the best way to protect yourself from severe COVID, help slow the virus’ spread, and prevent new variants from emerging. Everyone age 5 and older is eligible for COVID vaccination. Health officials also recommend booster shots for everyone age 5 and older, and a second booster for those age 50 and older, or people with weakened immune systems. The CDC provides a schedule which can help you determine if you’re eligible and up to date on your COVID vaccines.

Keep masks on your packing list. The CDC’s mask order is no longer in effect, but some cities and states are reinstating mask requirements. And health officials still recommend that everyone age 2 and older wear a well-fitting mask while traveling, including in transportation hubs and on planes, trains, buses, and other vehicles.

Self-monitor for COVID symptoms. After returning home, monitor your health and be mindful of symptoms, including:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Know before you go. When planning to travel, be mindful of current level of disease activity. If you live in or are traveling to an area where community spread of COVID is moderate to high, take all necessary precautions to protect against COVID, especially if you live with or will be visiting anyone with a weakened immune system or at high risk for severe disease. It’s also important to be aware of any state, local, tribal, or territorial restrictions that may be in place.

Continue to take other smart precautions. Even if you’re fully vaccinated, be mindful about crowded indoor spaces and try to keep a distance of at least six feet from those who aren’t travelling with you whenever possible. And remember to practice excellent hand hygiene. Avoid touching your face or eating with unclean hands. Wash your hands well and often with soap and water or use hand sanitizer with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent.

When to cancel your plans

As disappointing as it is, there are some situations where the “right” thing to do is also the hardest thing to do. After so many months of worry and frustration, it may be difficult to cancel or postpone a planned trip or vacation. But it’s important to make this tough call for your sake and others if:

  • You have symptoms of COVID. You should not travel if you have symptoms—even if you recovered within the past 90 days or are up to date with your COVID vaccines.
  • You test positive for COVID. Do not travel until 10 days have passed since your symptoms appeared, or the date of your positive test.
  • You are waiting for COVID test results.
  • You had close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID. Wait at least 5 days after your last contact with this person (preferably 10 days) before travelling.
  • If you test positive while at your destination, do not travel home. Instead, isolate and postpone your return until it’s safe for you to travel.