The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its domestic travel guidance for fully vaccinated people, lifting certain testing and self-quarantine requirements and recommending precautions like wearing a mask and avoiding crowds. But health officials continue to discourage nonessential travel, citing a sustained rise in cases and hospitalizations.
The CDC updated its website on Friday to reflect the latest scientific evidence, writing that "people who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine can travel safely within the United States."
The announcement comes less than a month after the CDC first released updated guidance about gatherings for fully vaccinated people, which it described as a "first step" toward returning to everyday activities.
The CDC considers someone fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive the last dose of vaccine. Those individuals will no longer need to get tested before or after travel unless their destination requires it, and do not need to self-quarantine upon return.
The new guidance means, for example, that fully vaccinated grandparents can fly to visit their healthy grandkids without getting a COVID-19 test or self-quarantining as long as they follow other recommended measures while traveling, according to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
Those measures include wearing a mask over their nose and mouth, staying 6 feet from others and washing their hands frequently. Masks are required on all planes traveling into, within or out of the U.S., under an executive order issued by President Biden.
But Walensky, speaking at a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing on Friday, nonetheless discouraged all nonessential travel, citing a continued increase in the seven-day average of cases and hospitalizations.
"While we believe that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves, CDC is not recommending travel at this time due to the rising number of cases," Walensky said.
She said that while vaccinated people can do more things safely, most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated. Those who are not must have a negative test 1-3 days before they travel under CDC guidance. They must either get tested 3-5 days after they return and self-quarantine for 7 days, or self-quarantine for 10 days with no test.
Walensky said on Monday that there is more travel occurring now than throughout the pandemic, including the winter holidays. She acknowledged that people have been looking to get away over spring break or take advantage of what they perceive as a "relative paucity in cases," and she said the country was seeing an uptick in cases as a result.
"The thing that's different this time is that we actually have it in our power to be done with the scale of the vaccination," she said. "And that will be so much slower if we have another surge to deal with as well."
The U.S. is already seeing an uptick in domestic travel, and many Americans are looking to book trips in the coming months in what experts described to NPR as a sign of "clear pent up demand for travel."
As the country's supply of COVID-19 doses has grown, so has Biden's goal for the number of shots in arms during his first 100 days, doubling the target to 200 million by the end of this month. Many states have already expanded eligibility to all adults or are set to do so in the coming weeks, well ahead of the president's May 1 deadline.
According to NPR's vaccine tracker, 16.9% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and 30% has had at least one dose. Researchers estimate that 70% to 85% of the country would need to have immunity for COVID-19 to stop spreading through communities.
International travel restrictions remain
The CDC is not lifting travel restrictions barring the entry of most non-U.S. citizens from places including China, Brazil, South Africa and parts of Europe. It will continue to require airline passengers entering the U.S. to get a test within three days of their departure and show proof of a negative result before boarding.
The travel industry has been pushing for some of these restrictions to end. A group of 26 organizations sent a letter to White House COVID-19 czar Jeffrey Zients urging the federal government "to partner with us to develop, by May 1, 2021, a risk-based, data-driven roadmap to rescind inbound international travel restrictions."
"To be clear, at this time, we do not support removal or easing of core public health protections, such as the universal mask mandate, inbound international testing requirement, physical distancing or other measures that have made travel safer and reduced transmission of the virus," they wrote. "However, the data and science demonstrate that the right public health measures are now in place to effectively mitigate risk and allow for the safe removal of entry restrictions."
Travel and tourism have taken a considerable hit because of the pandemic with industry groups noting that overseas travel to the U.S. declined by 81% in 2020, causing billions of dollars in losses. Without lifting international travel bans, the U.S. Travel Association estimates that some 1.1 million American jobs will not be restored and billions in spending will be lost by the end of the year.
"Fortunately, enough progress has been made on the health front that a rebound for domestic leisure travel looks possible this year, but that alone won't get the job done," Roger Dow, the association's president and CEO, said in a statement. "A full travel recovery will depend on reopening international markets, and we must also contend with the challenge of reviving business travel."