Traveling While Vaccinated: Expert Tips Before You Head Out

Damian McNamara

April 07, 2021

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The growing number of US residents gaining protection against COVID-19 through vaccinations each day means travel is becoming a safer option for some Americans to consider, a physician travel expert reports.

This does not mean carefree travel for the fully vaccinated. Vaccinated people still need to wear masks, physically distance when possible, and follow other recommended safeguards.

"I often get asked 'If the vaccine is so effective, why should a vaccinated person still wear masks and distance in a public space?' Henry Wu, MD, said during a media briefing today sponsored by Emory University in Atlanta.

Dr Henry Wu

"Of course you should always follow any local rules on masking and requirements on aircraft, but the real question is: Is there added protection from COVID with masking if you're already vaccinated?" said Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center. "The answer is yes."

Wu offered a rainstorm analogy. If the pandemic is like walking around in a heavy downpour, masks and social distancing are like an umbrella and a pair of boots. Getting the vaccine is like wearing a raincoat. "I'm still carrying that umbrella and wearing the boots. Eventually, when the rain slows down, maybe I can drop the umbrella," he said.

Because no vaccine offers 100% foolproof protection, "you still do not want to take the small risk of getting infected or spreading infection to somebody who is at high risk for severe illness," Wu said.

Plan Ahead

Trip planning should include research on COVID-19 requirements at your destination and for the return trip home, said Wu, who is also an associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

"It is a bit of a maze out there. My best advice is if you are traveling, do your research in advance. You don't want to get caught off guard, sent home unexpectedly, or put in quarantine unexpectedly," he explained.

Visiting a country with a high rate of COVID-19 cases could be risky for another reason. "Even if you're fully vaccinated and unlikely to get sick," an area struggling with the pandemic could have overwhelmed hospitals. "If you have a heart attack or break your leg, that may not be a great place to be."

If someone is traveling by airplane, do not focus only on the flight portion of the trip, Wu said. Airplanes are "quite a safe environment" with air exchange and filtration systems, but "all too much attention is really put on the flight when really travelers should think about the entire trip…and how they are interacting with folks along the way."

Cruise ships are a unique form of travel and come with some unique considerations, Wu said. Inherent risks stem from "a very large number of people from different parts of the worlds sharing common eating areas and bathrooms," for example. Historically, cruise ships have experienced outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 and norovirus.

"The industry is working hard to make things a lot safer. Some have announced that they are requiring all staff and passengers to be vaccinated," Wu said.

A Pass on Government-Issued Passports?

What proof of vaccination cruise lines will require remains unknown.

At the same time, the controversy surrounding vaccine passports continues. States such as Florida, and more recently Texas, have passed legislation banning COVID-19 vaccine passports, citing privacy concerns. Other states are reportedly considering similar measures.

Travel vaccinations are not new, and for decades people traveling to countries or regions with endemic infectious disease have carried a yellow immunization card.

However, these cards can be illegible, lost, counterfeited, and often include private information like date of birth, Wu said. As such, he recommends a digital solution that only confirms proof of vaccination without revealing any sensitive personal information.

The Biden administration remained largely silent on the issue until an April 6 news briefing. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki stated that the Biden administration does not support asking Americans to carry COVID-19 vaccine passports.

"There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential," she said.

Private firms and nonprofit organizations are still pursuing a form of proof of vaccination. The White House plans to provide guidance in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions list that will specifically address concerns about privacy, security, and discrimination, Psaki said.

Is the CDC Contradicting Itself?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, last week outlined some new travel recommendations for vaccinated Americans.

Travel is considered lower risk for fully vaccinated people, she said, and a quarantine and negative test result are no longer necessary for travel within the United States. However, the CDC still discourages unnecessary travel.

The new guidance comes just days after government officials started warning about a potential fourth wave of COVID-19. Also, at the end of March, Walensky gave an impassioned plea warning of "impending doom" if Americans do not continue taking all precautions against COVID-19.

A reporter asked Wu if he believes the CDC's recent messages are confusing.

Regarding unnecessary travel, he agreed that staying at home is safer than traveling. "Travel is a little more risky than it was pre-pandemic…but having the vaccine certainly makes it safer." But he does not think the CDCs recommendations are inconsistent.

Vaccination is "proving highly effective and safe and it's becoming more available to Americans every day." Even so. Wu added, "I'm vaccinated but I'm still keeping my guard up."

Wu has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter:  @MedReporter.

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