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Fully vaccinated people are at low-risk from travel, CDC says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/2/2021 Lena H. Sun, Lori Aratani
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Federal health officials said fully vaccinated people may travel as evidence mounts of the shots’ effectiveness at helping to protect against coronavirus infections and their spread.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that even though fully vaccinated individuals are at lower risk of infection, travel is still not recommended due to the rising number of cases in the United States and globally.

The long-awaited guidance is still welcome news for the growing number of vaccinated adults who want greater freedom to visit family members and take vacations for the first time in a year. It is also expected to help boost the travel and airline industries that have been seeking a relaxation of the restrictions.

The agency updated its guidance because of several newly released studies documenting the strong real-world effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines, and the rapid pace of vaccinations, now close to 3 million people a day. On Friday, the United States surpassed the milestone of 100 million people getting at least one shot.

But CDC Director Rochelle Walensky cautioned in a White House briefing Friday that while fully vaccinated people can now travel at low risk to themselves, “I would advocate against general travel overall. Our guidance is silent on recommending or not recommending fully vaccinated people travel. Our guidance speaks to the safety of doing so.”

Providing guidance amid a changing pandemic and science is complex, she acknowledged.

The science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely and it’s important for us to provide that guidance even in the context of rising cases,” Walensky said. " … At the same time, we must balance the science with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to a rise in cases.”

For that reason, she said, CDC has to continue to reinforce messages about the critical importance of public health measures such as mask-wearing.

For domestic travel, people who are two weeks past their final shot do not need to get a coronavirus test before or after trips and do not need to self-quarantine after travel unless it is required by a state or local jurisdiction. That means fully vaccinated grandparents can fly to visit their healthy grandchildren without getting a coronavirus test or self-quarantining, provided they follow the other recommended public health measures, such as wearing masks on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation.

For international travel, fully vaccinated people do not need to be tested before they leave the United States unless it is required by the destination, the guidance says. For their return to the United States, fully vaccinated people should get tested and have a negative result before they board an international flight back to the United States. And they should also be tested three to five days after arrival back in the United States.

Nearly 40 percent of all adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine and more than 1 in 5 adults are now fully vaccinated, including more than half of seniors, according to the CDC. On Friday, the United States is expected to pass the milestone of 100 million people getting at least one dose.

Friday’s guidance builds on the agency’s initial recommendations last month that said fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing. Those recommendations also say that vaccinated people can come together in the same way with unvaccinated members in one other household considered at low risk for severe disease, such as vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren. Fully vaccinated people, the agency said, should keep following health and safety precautions in public, including wearing a mask.

Since the initial guidance was released March 8, the number of Americans who are fully vaccinated has almost doubled, to nearly 60 million people, or about 17 percent of the total population, according to the CDC.

The agency updated its recommendations because of newly released studies showing the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines. In one released Monday of about 4,000 health-care personnel and essential workers, the CDC found the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines reduced the risk of infection by 80 percent two weeks after one shot. Protection increased to 90 percent two weeks after the second dose. The study is significant because it is one of the first to estimate vaccine effectiveness against infection — rather than just monitoring for symptomatic cases — including infections that resulted in no symptoms, according to the CDC.

On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced their vaccine was safe and effective in adolescents as young as 12. Data from a trial of the vaccine in nearly 2,300 people between the ages of 12 and 15 will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration in coming weeks, with the hope that vaccinations could begin before the next school year for younger teens, pending a regulatory green light, Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently authorized by the FDA for emergency use for people 16 and older.

On Thursday, new data from the ongoing trial of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has reinforced early results showing its high efficacy and provided the first hint that the vaccine may work against the more-virulent B. 1.351 variant first detected in South Africa, which has raised global alarm because it can evade some forms of immunity. The updated trial data was announced by news release from the U.S. firm Pfizer and the German company BioNTech and has yet to be peer-reviewed and published.

The CDC’s guidance for nonvaccinated travelers remains the same: They must still get tested one to three days before traveling domestically and again, three to five days afterward. And they should also self-quarantine for seven days after the trip’s conclusion, or for 10 days if they don’t get tested afterward.

The updated recommendations were welcomed by the air and travel industries, which have been pushing the CDC for changes. Last month, airlines recorded their best month for passenger traffic since the pandemic began and CDC’s announcement that travel is considered “low-risk” for those who are fully vaccinated will likely fuel additional demand.

“The CDC’s data suggests that vaccinated individuals don’t transmit the coronavirus, which opens the door much wider for resuming travel, albeit while continuing to carefully follow other health best practices,” said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “Acknowledging that vaccinations eliminate the need for testing and quarantines removes a key barrier to domestic travel.”

Officials with the Transportation Security Administration said there were 26 days in March when more than a million people moved through security checkpoints. That number is still far below 2019 when TSA was routinely screening more than 2 million passengers a day, but significantly higher than this point last year. For example on April 1 of last year, only 124,021 people moved through those checkpoints.

In addition to urging the CDC to update its travel guidance for the vaccinated, the industry is also pushing the administration to lift restrictions on international visitors. Last month, a coalition of travel groups, including Airlines for America and the U.S. Travel Association, sent a four-page letter to Jeffrey Zients, the White House’s covid-19 response coordinator, saying they were eager to partner with the administration on a plan to reopen the U.S. to international visitors.

In January, the Biden administration had extended a ban on travelers from Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 other European countries. The administration also added those who had recently been in South Africa to the list. The decision to extend it was part of an effort to help contain the spread of fast-moving variants.

The coalition said in the letter it hoped to have a plan by May 1 that could be implemented this summer, as long as “vaccine distribution and epidemiological trends continue in a positive direction.”

But doing away with the ban may prove trickier given infection trends in Europe, where several countries are reimposing restrictions because of a new surge.

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