Travel after injected Covid-19 vaccines: where can go and requirements
Photo: Kerdowney

Earlier this month, we asked our readers the questions they have about the future of travel at this critical juncture in the pandemic.

They report that the vaccines are indeed a cause for optimism, including for travel and travelers.

“I’m so hopeful about this year in terms of travel and being able to get back to doing, [perhaps] slightly differently, a lot of the things we’re used to doing. And that’s of course due to the vaccines,” says Kristin Bratton Nelson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta.

Dr. Manisha Juthani, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, and an infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine is also encouraged about how this year will unfold.

When asked what advice she would offer travelers regarding how they should view the coming weeks and months to avoid having too many hopes dashed (we already went down that road in 2020, remember?), she says, “Once vaccinated and if the rates of infection are low around you and in the place that you are going to, I would definitely plan to travel.

The bottom line, says Dr. Juthani, “Sign up for a vaccine as soon as your chance comes to get it.”

COVID-19 Vaccinations Updates in the United States

The U.S. is working to vaccinate a high percentage of its population against COVID-19 as soon as possible to stop the spread of the disease and end the outbreak in the country, NPR reported.

The mission becomes even more urgent as coronavirus variants emerge around the world, raising concerns that the virus could evade our efforts to control it, if the spread is not curbed quickly.

Travel after injected Covid-19 vaccines: Where Can Go and Requirements
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Since vaccine distribution began in the U.S. on Dec. 14, more than 64 million doses have been administered, reaching 13.3% of the total U.S. population, according to federal data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. is currently administering over 1.6 million shots a day.

In addition to the states, the federal government distributes vaccines to four federal agencies, five U.S. territories and three freely associated states.

Travel after injected Covid-19 vaccines: Where Can Go and Requirements
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Currently, the two COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized for emergency use each require a two-shot regimen spaced out by three or four weeks. Vaccination is not complete until both doses are received.

Strategies for distribution — along with the efficiency and equity of the process — vary from state to state.

States receive weekly vaccine allocations from the federal government based on their total adult populations. Each state has its own plan for how to get those vaccines out to its residents — through county health offices, hospital systems, pharmacies, mass vaccination sites and mobile clinics — and some states are making more efficient use of their supplies than others.

The federal government also sends vaccine allotments directly to some large retail pharmacies and community health centers.

How will a vaccine prevent COVID-19?

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has spikes of protein on each viral particle. These spikes help the viruses attach to cells and cause disease. Some of the coronavirus vaccines in development are designed to help the body “recognize” these spike proteins and fight the coronavirus that has them.

An effective vaccine will protect a person who receives it by lowering their chances of getting COVID-19 if they encounter the coronavirus. Widespread vaccination for the coronavirus means that the virus will not infect as many people. This will limit spread through communities.

Travel after injected Covid-19 vaccines: Where Can Go and Requirements
Photo: Andalou Agency

Both Pfizer and Moderna report that their vaccines show approximately 95% efficacy at preventing both mild and severe symptoms of COVID-19. This level of efficacy appears to apply across age groups, racial and ethnic groups, and both sexes, as reported in the Pfizer trial.

Dr. Manisha Juthani notes that while 1 in 20 people vaccinated by either the Pfizer or Moderna shots being administered in the United States will get COVID, the disease will be mild to moderate for those who are vaccinated. “Data to date show that vaccination protects 100 percent from hospitalization and death,” says Dr. Juthani.

Is it safe to travel once you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19?

Infectious disease experts agree that being vaccinated gives travelers a very important and effective added layer of protection. But that even with that added layer of protection, travelers should take precautions—and baby steps, according to Afar.

For starters, you shouldn’t head out the door immediately after your second dose.

“Certainly, being vaccinated will give you peace of mind when you travel,” says Amira Roess, professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. But, she adds, “Remember that vaccines don’t work immediately. You need to give your body about two weeks after each dose for a strong enough immune response to occur. . . . We expect that about two weeks after your second dose you may have very high protection.”

Roess notes that because we are still seeing a lot of community transmission of COVID-19, and because there are new variants circulating that we are still learning more about, those who are vaccinated should remain vigilant by continuing to wear masks and practicing social distancing.

“This is especially critical during this time when most people are still not yet vaccinated. At some point, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we hope that a large enough proportion of our population will be vaccinated and then we’ll be able to start to return to life as it was prepandemic,” says Roess.

Nelson says she sees travel unfolding in a couple different phases as the vaccine rollout continues. During phase one, as a percentage of the population start to get vaccinated, people may choose to take trips that are critically important to them, travel they feel they really need to do, whether it’s to see family, or for another pressing personal or professional reason.

“This whole game is just reducing your risk at every point that you can,” says Nelson. “Once you are vaccinated it does not mean that you can go to a party with 100 people without a mask . . . but it does mean that the risk-benefit sort of changes for a lot of these questions that we have been thinking about over the last year—that balance shifts once you’re vaccinated. It’s not that you don’t take precautions, it’s just that you feel a lot safer doing something that maybe nine months ago you wouldn’t have done. And I think that that’s perfectly reasonable.”

Ideally, she said she would like to see a larger percentage of the population inoculated before we start venturing out on non-necessary vacation getaways. She suggests waiting another three to six months before heading out for nonessential trips.

But, she adds, “Plan that trip. Plan it for late summer, plan it for fall, so you have something to look forward to. I think there’s a very reasonable expectation that a large segment of the population is going to be vaccinated [by then].”

If I travel to see family, what precautions should we all take if some aren’t vaccinated?

As those who are older and at higher risk from COVID-19 get vaccinated, the risk dynamic for gatherings will start to change. Over the past year, we’ve all become accustomed to not just protecting each other but protecting older or more vulnerable friends and family with even greater care because they are at higher risk. Once they are vaccinated, who will be protecting whom—and how?

“Masking and distancing at gatherings are still the best way to protect those that are not vaccinated or older adults at this time. Given that gatherings have been limited, starting to allow for some gatherings but still having public health measures in place is a good transition as we start to emerge from this pandemic,” says Dr. Juthani.

Will proof of vaccination be a requirement to travel?

Beyond the public health advice, there’s also the issue of logistics. Whether or not you are vaccinated, you can, of course, currently travel. You can drive or fly to countless destinations throughout the U.S. and you can even venture further afield, to destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, and to countries where Americans are allowed entry, typically when armed with negative COVID test results.

But there are many places in the world that have been and remain off limits to numerous travelers due to the pandemic, including much of Europe and Asia. Many borders have been closed entirely. Thus, the question is how and whether being vaccinated will impact where we can go in the world and under what conditions.

All indications are that proof of a COVID-19 vaccination could eventually open some doors for travelers. But it won’t necessarily open them all and it won’t necessarily be the only way to unlock those doors. In many cases, the doors could remain shut for some time as governments continue to monitor global vaccine rollouts and new coronavirus variants that emerge.

Thus far, only a handful of governments have indicated that they will ease entry restrictions for vaccinated travelers. And even among those destinations, there are often still loopholes for travelers. For instance, European countries such as Poland, Iceland, and Cyprus that have unveiled plans to relax restrictions for vaccinated travelers have reported that it will still only be for those who were already allowed to enter (with restrictions), such as travelers from the European Union. Vaccinated travelers would simply be allowed to bypass quarantines and possibly testing measures.

Seychelles, which has also reported it will allow vaccinated travelers to enter without having to quarantine, said those with COVID-19 vaccine certificates will still need to present a negative COVID-19 test result as well.

Travel after injected Covid-19 vaccines: Where Can Go and Requirements
Photo by song_about_summer/Shutterstock

Will we need a vaccine passport to travel internationally?

In a January 21 Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, President Joe Biden directed government agencies to assess the feasibility of developing an international digital vaccine certificate to which COVID-19 vaccination status could be linked.

Numerous companies have already begun developing and executing the technology for such a digital COVID passport—they include the CommonPass, the IBM Digital Health Pass, and the International Air Transport Association’s IATA Travel Pass. But what is less clear is how and whether governments will use digital vaccine passports, seeing as they haven’t even established clear policies on entry requirements for vaccinated travelers.

In January, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis proposed a European COVID-19 vaccination certificate that would allow those who are vaccinated to travel freely in Europe. (The proposal did not address those coming in from outside of Europe.)

European Union leaders met on January 21 to discuss the possibility of having a common vaccine certificate, after which European Council president Charles Michel said that EU leaders “should be able to agree on common elements to include in a certificate for medical purposes,” according to a Reuters report.

Potentially using the certificate for travel purposes was deemed to require further talks, Reuters reported.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) recently warned, however, that relying on the vaccinations as a passport to entry for travel simply excludes too many travelers. The organization is instead pushing for more and better testing protocols.

Some cruise lines have already decided to make vaccination a requirement for passengers to board, including luxury line Crystal Cruises, U.S. riverboat operator American Queen Steamboat Company, and its sister line Victory Cruise Lines, which sails the Great Lakes and in Alaska and Mexico. Cruising has been largely on hold since last March when several major coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships defined the dramatic beginnings of this global pandemic. Given the challenges cruise lines have faced, perhaps it’s no surprise that some are playing it extremely cautiously, requiring vaccinations from guests and crew.

If I’m vaccinated will I still need to get tested for COVID when I travel?

For the time being, the vast majority of destinations that have COVID-19 testing requirements in place for travelers have not yet developed bypass options for vaccinated travelers. Any vaccinated travelers who travel in the near future should expect to have to follow the same rules as unvaccinated travelers regarding COVID-19 testing requirements.

This could of course change if and when governments begin to adjust entry requirements for vaccinated travelers. But as mentioned above, with the exception of a handful of countries, such as Iceland, we have yet to see these kinds of adjustments made on any larger scale yet.

Travel after injected Covid-19 vaccines: Where Can Go and Requirements
Photo by fokke baarssen/Shutterstock

Can you skip quarantine if you’ve been vaccinated?

If you’re in the U.S., yes — with several caveats.

The CDC recently said fully vaccinated people would no longer be required to quarantine after being exposed to someone with COVID-19 if they meet all the criteria, including:

Being fully vaccinated

Being within three months following receipt of the last dose

Remaining asymptomatic since exposure

But the CDC says travelers, regardless of vaccination status, should still self-quarantine for at least seven days following travel if they receive a negative COVID-19 test and experience no symptoms (and 10 days without a test).

And being vaccinated definitely won’t exempt you from the new order requiring you to present a negative COVID-19 test before flying to the United States from abroad — at least not right now.

How could international travel with kids work?

Because we have yet to see large-scale policy adjustments for vaccinated travelers of any kind, it is far too soon to know what kinds of exceptions, if any, will be made for children. If COVID testing requirements are any indication, many destinations typically do have an exception for kids—but the age limits on these exceptions vary widely. The U.S. requires negative COVID tests from kids entering the United States who are age two and older and Canada requires it for kids age five and older, as two examples.

Dr. Juthani of Yale says that we can expect to start to see some data about children and COVID vaccines by the fall. She notes that young children are less likely to get the virus and are less likely to be hospitalized from it. “So, if parents and grandparents can get vaccinated, families can assess their own risk tolerance and consider travel even if their children are not vaccinated,” advises Dr. Juthani.

How might the newer coronavirus variants impact travel?

As governments keep a watchful eye and attempt to keep particularly concerning variants at bay, they could impact how and when governments relax travel restrictions—we’ve already seen some restrictions tighten in direct response to the variants, such as the United States expanding its COVID-19 travel ban to include travel from South Africa, due to the variant circulating there.

New variants mean that travelers should also be more vigilant.

“If I were to travel on an airplane right now, I would be more comfortable with a KN95 mask because we don’t know as much about how easy [these new variants] spread. What we do know is that they’re a little bit more dangerous,” says Nelson.

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