As the crushing omicron wave subsides, even the strictest states are dropping mask requirements. Countries around the world are getting rid of testing requirements for vaccinated visitors. And the travel industry is pushing for the United States to jettison its testing rules to fly into the country.
So should we prepare to travel like it’s 2019 again?
Not quite — and possibly not ever, said health experts interviewed by The Washington Post.
“The pandemic, whether we want to believe it or not, is still happening,” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and chief science officer at eMed, which offers proctored rapid tests for home use.
In the United States, the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases has dropped significantly from the omicron peak and well below the numbers seen during the delta surge. But new infections are higher than they were during much of 2020 and 2021. While hospitalizations and deaths are dropping, Washington Post data show that the average number of daily new deaths in the country is nearly 2,300, and almost 69,000 are hospitalized with covid-19.
Doctors say travelers need to determine the level of risk they are comfortable taking based on their own health status, especially as some rules fall away.
But as the surge wanes, experts caution that any return to normalcy will not be the same as it was pre-pandemic. Leading infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, has said that we will “have to ‘live’ with something that will not be eradicated.”
Or as Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, put it: “2019 doesn’t exist anymore.”
As travel restrictions loosen around the world, experts offered strategies on what precautions to keep — and where we can return to some normalcy.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever stop wearing a mask in airports’
The federal mask mandate for airports, airplanes and other forms of mass transportation is in place at least through March 18. But even when masking up is no longer required, Mina said, it makes a lot of sense to continue doing so at airports, where people congregate from many different places.
He said that even if travelers are coming from a place with low coronavirus case numbers, they have no idea where the people surrounding them are coming from.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop wearing a mask in airports,” he said.
Gronvall said some people might be ready to eat indoors again as cases drop.
“But if you’re in a tight crowd with strangers and you’re not eating or drinking at the moment …personally, I’m going to wear a mask,” she said. She also pointed out that mask-wearing could continue to be useful as a protection against other respiratory diseases, such as the flu.
‘People should be taking precautions around people they know are immunocompromised’
Henry Wu, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory TravelWell Center, is preparing to travel to Hawaii to visit his parents, who would be at risk for severe disease from the coronavirus. He said he plans to take a coronavirus test before he sees them to be extra cautious.
“If you’re visiting some frail family members, be particularly careful before visiting them,” he said. Traveling with kids who are not old enough yet to be vaccinated should also warrant extra care, he said.
Regardless of their own health status, Gronvall said, travelers should keep in mind the most vulnerable people they will be around.
“People should be taking precautions around people they know are immunocompromised,” she said.
And Wu said individuals who are themselves at higher risk should take into account what treatments might be available to them overseas if they were to catch the virus.
“It’s an important consideration, because even if you’re vaccinated and unlikely to die from the infection, if you’re somebody who would try to get those treatments, it may be tricky to travel right now,” he said.
‘I think it’s a pretty low ask to have people test themselves before traveling’
One of the biggest recent changes for travelers has been the decision by several countries to do away with testing before arrival for vaccinated visitors. But experts say it could be wise to take a precautionary test — or to bring tests on a trip.
Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, said it’s a good idea to do “due diligence” before traveling if someone has had recent exposure.
And, she said, travelers should think ahead to the end of their trip; a negative test is required to return to the United States.
“We’re really focused on the destination, but not always the return home, which can be challenging for some,” Popescu said.
Mina said he thinks that testing even before domestic flights, which may not require tests, is a sound practice.
“As long as the tests are available, which they generally are … I think it’s a pretty low ask to have people test themselves before traveling,” he said.
Mina said it especially makes sense to take a test when traveling from a place with high case numbers to a destination with very low numbers. He also suggested bringing a test along “just because.”
“If you land somewhere and two days in, scratchy throat and sniffles, you may want to know, 'Was this covid? Did I pick this up?” he said.
‘A booster shot is definitely a good idea’
Experts say travelers should be up to date with their vaccinations, which means getting a booster once eligible.
“The real advice for travelers is no matter what, vaccination is by far … the most important thing you can do,” Wu said. “And clearly the booster makes a big difference.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccine can wane over time, especially in older adults. Clinical trials have shown that a booster helped prevent severe disease, the agency said.
“A booster shot is definitely a good idea,” Gronvall said. “And if somebody has already gotten omicron, I would wait for a couple of months and then get a booster.”
‘It really depends a lot on the place’
Instead of treating every destination the same, travelers should consider the situation where they’re going, Gronvall said, and whether case numbers are high. In some parts of the world, vaccination numbers are low, and the disease is still spreading.
“It really depends a lot on the place,” she said.
Popescu said travelers can look at data from the CDC, World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins covid-19 tracker and regional public health bodies. Currently, the CDC has more than half the world’s destinations under its highest warning category.
“Even if restrictions are relaxed, if you are still seeing substantial community transmission, you want to be aware of that,” she said.
Popescu added: “If you’re indoors in an area with low community transmission, I think that’s very different than indoors in a very crowded space where you’re still seeing a lot of community spread.”
‘Mix and match as needed’
While some travelers might want to make hard and fast rules about safety precautions, experts emphasize that people can layer on the tools they have amassed over the past two years as the situation demands.
“Masking, avoiding crowded areas, these are all tools we can use and mix and match as needed,” Wu said.
Mina said he is “choosing actively not to go to really packed places.” But if it made sense to go to dinner for a business meeting, he would. Decreasing risk as much as possible — even if not 100 percent of the time — can still be beneficial, he said.
“It doesn’t have to be an on-off thing,” Mina said.
‘It is going to come back’
As countries and states relax some rules, experts warn that travelers should expect restrictions to return if the pandemic takes another turn for the worse.
Mina said authorities should create dynamic policies that address the reality of the virus in real time — whether that’s easing rules when cases are low or reinstating them when infections spike.
“This virus is going to turn out to be seasonal; it is going to come back,” he said.
Wu said that means there will be times to take more precautions and times that travelers can let their guards down a bit.
“We’re not going back to the previous normal,” he said. “I think the new normal is using these tools to help protect ourselves.”
He and others warned that there could always be new variants, though Wu said the hope is that they would not be more threatening as the world gains more immunity.
“There are no guarantees, as much rampant transmission as we have around the world, that we won’t have to learn additional letters of the Greek alphabet,” Gronvall said.
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