It’s been just over two months since the U.S. began distributing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for COVID-19, and since that time more than 64 million doses have been administered, according to the CDC’s vaccination tracker.
At the current rate of about 840,000 doses being administered each day on average, 75 percent of the U.S. population should receive their first vaccine dose by October 2021, according to an interactive Reuters COVID-19 vaccine tracking tool. Right now, more than 13 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose. Estimates on when we might reach herd immunity, when enough people are immune to the virus so that it can’t spread, vary between as early as this spring and as late as this fall.
In the meantime, many healthcare and frontline workers, as well as citizens age 65 and older have begun receiving their first and second doses. And they, like many of the rest of us eagerly awaiting our turn in line, are likely asking themselves: Now what? What can I do? Can I travel? What safety precautions will I still need to take? Where can I go? Who can I see?
Earlier this month, we asked our readers for the questions they have about the future of travel at this critical juncture in the pandemic—where we’re still very much in the thick of the health crisis but have begun to get a glimpse of what a way out may look and feel like, thanks to the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines. We reached out to infectious disease experts to help us answer them.
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.
“I miss traveling myself and hope to take a trip on a plane in 2021. It will require continued vigilance, public/private partnerships, and a commitment from everyone in the world to get this virus to recede, but I remain hopeful that we can do this in 2021.”
The bottom line, says Dr. Juthani, “Sign up for a vaccine as soon as your chance comes to get it.”
What protection do COVID-19 vaccines provide?
Before getting into the logistics of travel in a postvaccine world, we should first tackle the public health basics of what it actually means to get vaccinated.
“The vaccines are very effective at preventing severe disease,” explains Nelson.
“Just because you get vaccinated does not necessarily mean that you can’t get infected with SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, but it does mean that if you are, you are much less likely to be hospitalized and you are much less likely to have a lot of the severe outcomes that we worry about with COVID.”
Dr. 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.
Am often asked about different vaccines and their efficacy Each trials tracks, reports efficacy differently Currently, we have preliminary results for Novavax and J&J But what numbers matter? What should you look for? Here’s one set of data to track. In a simple table pic.twitter.com/9m2OBgqcla — Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@ashishkjha) February 1, 2021
Nelson adds that more recent research has also indicated that being vaccinated is “very likely to reduce the likelihood of transmission if you were to be infected. . . . Just because you are vaccinated does not necessarily mean you can’t carry it and spread it to other people, but it does make it that much less likely.”
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.
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 while traveling.
“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 a 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.
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.
“The common sense approach is to allow the free movement of people who can prove a negative [COVID-19] test result, rather than reserve traveling for a small minority who have been vaccinated,” Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the WTTC, said in a statement.
Guevara’s concern is that if countries or travel companies require vaccinations from travelers, those further down the list, such as younger travelers or those in countries where the vaccines aren’t being made available as quickly, will be at a disadvantage.
“We should not discriminate against those who wish to travel but have not been vaccinated,” Guevara added.
Whether it’s discriminatory or not, 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.
What the coming weeks and months will reveal is how many additional travel companies and governments will begin developing vaccine policies for travelers and what those policies will look like.
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.
Will vaccinated travelers need to quarantine after traveling?
Similar to the above, we have yet to see quarantine requirements be adjusted by more than a few countries for vaccinated travelers. For now, vaccinated travelers should expect that they will be required to adhere to the quarantine requirements set forth by the destinations they are traveling to.
That being said, among the requirements being waived for vaccinated travelers by the few countries, such as Poland and Seychelles, that have already laid out their rules for vaccinated travelers is the need to quarantine. So, it’s certainly a possibility in the future. We’re just not there yet.
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.
George Mason University’s Roess notes that clinical trials that will assess the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines in children are just beginning. “The hope is that enough data will be available by the middle of the summer that vaccination may begin towards the end of this year in older pediatric populations but more likely vaccination in the majority of pediatric populations will not begin until 2022,” says Roess.
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?
With regards to the newer variants of coronavirus that have emerged more recently, including those that have been identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil, the concern there is that some have been found to be more transmissible, explains Emory University’s Nelson. They are “more likely to spread than some of the strains that we’ve been dealing with for the past year,” she says.
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.
Nelson notes that while the current vaccines were tested against the variants that were circulating last year and might be a little less effective against newer variants, “The vaccines are extraordinarily effective against the variants that we saw circulating last year. So, if they are a little less effective against the variants, yes, that is concerning but you are still more protected than you would be if you were not vaccinated.”