“We were so close we could see the finish line,” says Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Were it not for the extremely low vaccination rates in the middle of the country, we probably wouldn’t be seeing a delta surge like this.”
The surge of the delta variant has brought back the need for early pandemic precautions such as mask mandates and travel restrictions. But what about testing for travel?
Last year, the CDC recommended testing before a trip, sometimes after you arrived in your destination, and again when you returned home (although, they preferred people would quarantine).
I have been getting coronavirus tests to travel throughout the pandemic, both when it was required (i.e., to go to Hawaii and to go to France) and when it wasn’t. It has given me peace of mind — even after getting vaccinated — and alleviated some guilt about traveling this year.
To find out if this is a worthwhile endeavor, especially amid delta, I talked to health experts for their takes.
The case for getting tested to travel
Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist and an associate professor of public health and medical ethics at University of California at Riverside, says testing is important before and after travel for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
“It’s useful to be aware of those and be sure not to unknowingly bring virus back into your home and those living with you,” he said in an email.
Brown also says the spread of delta reiterates the importance of, “getting tested if you suspect you could have been exposed since you can still spread the virus even if vaccinated.”
Amber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that while testing can reduce risk, it doesn’t guarantee there is zero risk. For example, testing can reduce risk if you’re going somewhere where everyone was required to test negative before visiting.
However, you could test before your trip, pick up coronavirus along the way and get sick while you’re on vacation.
“Testing doesn’t prevent that,” D’Souza says. “It’s several days after you’re exposed that people first become infectious and first test positive.”
The case against testing (unless it’s a requirement)
At this point, the CDC travel website says that unless it’s required by the destination you’re visiting or for entry back into the United States, “you do NOT need to get tested or self-quarantine if you are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 3 months.”
From Gonsenhauser’s perspective, there is still a role for testing, “particularly on return to your communities,” he says. “We’re trying everything we can to limit spread within communities.”
But Gonsenhauser doesn’t think testing does much to change traveler behavior. He has seen examples of people testing positive, or knowing they have been exposed to coronavirus, who refuse to quarantine. If you test positive and don’t do anything about it, testing seems irrelevant.
“It’s hard to say what the impact of additional required testing would necessarily be in terms of limiting the risk of spread,” Gonsenhauser says.
Far more beneficial, Gonsenhauser says, is getting more of the population vaccinated, choosing travel destinations with lower transmission rates or potentially canceling travel plans. “And obviously masking and physically distancing wherever possible,” he says.
Tom Kenyon, Project HOPE’s chief health officer who spent 21 years at the CDC, is on a similar page as Gonsenhauser.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, testing really doesn’t add much other than to give more reassurance,” he says.
So who should get tested?
As Kenyon said, you could get a test “if you want to be really sure you’re not posing a risk to others and that you’re not one of these people that have a very rare breakthrough infection.”
His advice on testing is different for the unvaccinated.
“If you’re unvaccinated and you really think you have to travel, then you should get a viral test one to three days before you travel,” Kenyon says. “Then after you travel, get another viral test three to five days after you get back and then stay home. Nothing’s changed.”
Anyone traveling abroad should look into the requirements of their destination before choosing their test. Those traveling by air into the U.S. from an international destination (who are at least 2 years old) must get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or rapid antigen test within three days of their flight. Airline staff should ask to see those results before you board.
For both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the health experts agreed that if you’re experiencing symptoms, you should get tested whether you have plans to travel or not.
How can you find a test?
Our options for testing have come a long way since 2020. There are now “self tests” you can use at home alone or with the help of a telemedicine provider. Testing is available at airports, pharmacies, fire stations and through libraries.
I’ve been tested at least a dozen times, trying methods from CVS, a doctor’s office, drive-throughs at hospitals, mail-in kits from Pixel by LabCorp and self-tests from BinaxNOW. A major takeaway from my experience: Don’t wait until the last minute to figure it out. Delivery times for test kits can fluctuate, and appointment slots for tests aren’t guaranteed.
Lin Chen, a doctor and director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital, said travelers can also ask their primary care provider about testing options in their area. You can also check out city and state health department websites for testing resources. For international testing, visit the U.S. Embassy website, or the tourism board website, of the destination to find more information.
Again, before you book or buy your test, make sure you are getting one suited for your needs. If you are going abroad or returning to the United States from an international trip, there will be stricter rules about what type you get and when. (Here’s an entire story on that.) If you’re just looking for some reassurance, picking up an at-home test at your local pharmacy is simple, and it’s cheaper than going to an urgent care or airport.