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It’s always darkest before the dawn—we have one last challenging winter to endure before vaccine relief will be on its way.
As news emerged this week of two very promising COVID-19 vaccines—one from Moderna and one from Pfizer—experts discuss what travelers can realistically expect in the coming weeks and months.
It’s the news we have all been waiting for since spring 2020. Not one, but two promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates have emerged within the past week—one from Moderna Inc. that appears to be 94.5 percent effective, and an announcement from Pfizer Inc. about a vaccine that is 90 percent effective—the results for which infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said are “truly striking.”
The two companies could be granted permission for emergency use of the vaccines in the United States within a matter of weeks. U.S. officials said they hope to have about 20 million Moderna doses and another 20 million of the vaccine made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech available for use in late December, the Associated Press reports.
Fauci described the recent vaccine developments as “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Travel stocks, including those of cruise and airline companies, rallied on the news, indicating a high level of anticipation for a turnaround in travel pegged to the promise of the vaccines.
Which begs the big question: Will the vaccine news translate into us actually being able to safely roam the world again? How and when?
After speaking with infectious disease and travel industry experts, it’s clear that travelers should be thinking about the coming months in three phases: prevaccine, postvaccine, and post-COVID. The length of time and the conditions of each phase are variable—if there’s one thing we’ve learned during this pandemic, it’s that nothing is set in stone. Patience and perseverance remain valuable assets for some time. Here’s a breakdown of each phase.
This is the period we are currently in, before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.
As of right now, we have hopeful news regarding two vaccine candidates, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will need to grant emergency-use authorization before widespread distribution can begin. According to infectious disease experts, a large-scale vaccine rollout could still take several months. Until then, nothing has changed in terms of the vigilance with which we should be living our lives—and traveling. Mask wearing and social distancing are here for the foreseeable future.
In fact, we should be even more vigilant in the coming days and weeks due to the current spikes in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the United States, just as we head into the holiday season when families and friends traditionally travel to see one another.
In the United States, 1 million coronavirus cases were reported in the past week alone, and some state and local governments are imposing increasingly strict travel restrictions and recommendations ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
“We’re just about to go into the holidays and the colder months where people are inclined to go inside on top of the fact that this is the eleventh month of the pandemic and everyone is quite fatigued, especially in an election year. There’s a real need and desire for a sense of normalcy. At this point people are over it,” says Saskia Popescu, senior infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University. “It’s extremely worrisome. It’s very likely with the trajectory that we’re seeing that the cases are going to continue getting worse and if people don’t follow the safety recommendations for the holidays and the winter months that it will continue that way.”
Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and an infectious diseases expert, echoes Popescu’s concern, noting that the current surge in cases is “very serious” and that the number of new cases and hospitalizations over most of the country indicates that the virus is “essentially uncontrolled.”
According to Schaffner, “We all have to go back to being very restrained, and absolutely committed to wearing masks, social distancing, and avoid groups. I know about COVID fatigue; I know about COVID annoyance. The very fact that we’re going to start to vaccinate, I hope, by the end of December doesn’t mean we can throw our masks in the trash. We’ll be wearing masks in July.”
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While we still have a very challenging winter ahead of us, the latest vaccine developments offer something that could help many of us get through—a sense of hope and optimism.
“We still have a long winter to endure,” says Scott Keyes, founder of airfare tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights. “But with a light at the end of the tunnel, many of us will be getting through the winter months by funneling energy into summer 2021 travel planning.”
Many travel companies are eager to lure customers back and are aware that travelers might be spending the holidays dreaming about future trips they have put off until sometime in 2021 and beyond. Consequently, we are going to see a rather robust onslaught of deals and promotions during Thanksgiving week and immediately after—for the popular shopping periods known as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Travel Deal Tuesday, during which travel companies will parade their offerings. (We’re compiling our favorites to share with readers Thanksgiving week, too.)
“Growing optimism about a publicly available vaccine will also be good news for travelers hoping for a deal on their next trip,” says Keyes. “Nearly one out of every three commercial airplanes is currently in storage. As airlines feel more confident about future demand for travel, they’ll increasingly bring those planes back. More routes and more seats means more competition between airlines, and lower fares to entice travelers back in the sky.”
A survey conducted by booking app Hopper found that 71 percent of Americans hope to travel in 2021. Hopper reports that travelers should expect deals with more flexible booking options—waived change and cancellation fees among them—given the ongoing uncertainty with the pandemic. It predicts that prices will be 34 percent lower during this year’s promotional period compared to last year.
“All along we have been experiencing strong bookings and planning for travel in the third quarter of 2021 and beyond,” says Eric Maryanov, president of Los Angeles–based All-Travel and a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council (TAC). “The news of the vaccine helps validate those travel plans.”
This is the period that will encompass the vaccine rollout, which could last several months.
If the FDA allows emergency use of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, some supplies could be available by the end of this year. So, what happens after that?
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the hope is that enough doses are available by the end of January to vaccinate adults over 65, who are at the highest risk from the coronavirus, and health care workers.
“Vaccinating 330 million people in the U.S.—it will take months. It will be at the end of the first quarter going into the second quarter [of 2021] that average Janes and Joes will be invited to get in line and roll up their sleeves,” says Vanderbilt University’s Schaffner.
In the same way that research and understanding have steadily mounted on COVID-19 over the last near-year scientists have had to study the virus, there will be much to learn about the vaccines’ effectiveness and longevity.
Popescu notes that some of the things that infectious disease experts will study following a vaccine rollout will be potential side effects, both short term and long term, the vaccines’ efficacy, and how long protection lasts.
Another challenge, says Popescu, is there’s a part of the population that has said it would not take the vaccine.
“There’s a lot of hurdles to getting people onboard should a vaccine make it through all these trials and is found to be efficacious,” she adds.
During this time of the vaccine rollout and even afterwards, it’s likely we will all need to continue to live and travel with many of the same precautions we were taking prior to the vaccine—at least for a time.
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“We will still probably have to modify certain activities. Maybe people who have serious underlying illnesses who are older still will be extra careful. Maybe by then a lot of people will be just kind of, during the wintertime when they’re out and about, wearing masks. It becomes a social norm. It doesn’t raise an eyebrow,” says Schaffner.
Keyes says that until the pandemic has been largely defeated, he expects masks to still be required on planes and in airports, too.
As the public health landscape evolves, the travel landscape will have to evolve alongside it. During the pandemic, countries have implemented everything from outright travel bans to control the spread of the virus to relying on tools such as quarantines and COVID-19 testing to facilitate some degree of responsible travel.
The travel industry has been pushing for a greater reliance on COVID-19 testing as a way to more safely and practically open borders and travel while we await further vaccine developments. States like Hawaii and Alaska have implemented COVID-19 testing requirements for arrivals as a way to bypass otherwise mandatory quarantines, as have countries like Croatia, South Africa, and numerous destinations in the Caribbean.
Instead of COVID-19 testing, “as vaccines become more widely available, many countries will require incoming travelers to show proof of vaccination,” predicts Dr. Brad Perkins, chief medical officer of the Commons Project, a Swiss-based nonprofit that developed the digital health pass CommonPass together with the World Economic Forum. CommonPass is an app that travelers can use to upload their COVID-19 test results—and eventually their vaccine results—for governments that require them.
Popescu, however, says there are concerns about the notion of “immunity passports” because of the inequities they can encourage between those who have been immunized and those who haven’t. That, too, will be something that governments and the travel industry will need to address during this process.
Regardless, current border restrictions will begin to ease as vaccines become more widely available, Keyes predicts.
During this period of the vaccine rollout, we are also likely to see protocols evolve for cruise lines, which are still trying to figure out how to safely sail during the pandemic, let alone once there’s a vaccine. Airlines, too, have been investing in health and safety measures and increasingly offering COVID-19 testing to passengers to help stimulate demand for air travel. It isn’t yet clear how and whether the availability of vaccines will change the way they fly in 2021 and beyond.
Cary Gray, CEO and owner of bespoke travel company Gray & Co. (and another member of AFAR’s TAC team) said that ultimately vaccines “will be a total game changer” for travel. Jet-setters who have largely not been able travel internationally, or even domestically, are very eager to get back out into the world.
This is the time after the global coronavirus pandemic is declared officially over.
The moment we can declare the coronavirus pandemic to be really and truly in the rearview mirror will be a moment for the world to rejoice. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know precisely when that moment will come—we’ll have to wait to see how the vaccines roll out globally and what kind of challenges we will experience along the way.
Dr. Schaffner predicts that we could begin to see a “semblance” of normalcy sometime toward the end of next year.
“If, theoretically, we had a wonderfully effective vaccine that gave you genuine solid protection for the long term and if the virus doesn’t mutate, well, then I think we can get back to near normal, yes,” says Schaffner. “I would think toward the second half of the year, particularly the fourth quarter of next year, we will go back to a semblance of normal.”
Once we are truly in a post-COVID world, travel restrictions related to the pandemic should be a thing of the past. People will feel more comfortable traveling and the numbers of travelers crisscrossing the country and the globe should start to climb back up.
What’s the best thing coming for travelers in a post-COVID world? “Travel will revert to being fun again, rather than anxiety-inducing,” says Keyes.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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