Fully vaccinated individuals can safely travel inside the U.S. and internationally, the CDC said in new guidance released Friday, though they should still wear a mask when traveling on public transportation, including airplanes.
The CDC says recent research on the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines indicates there is low risk to vaccinated individuals and that they can travel without a COVID-19 test or quarantining after traveling.
Still, the CDC is not "recommending" travel at this time due to the rising number of cases, according to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
"We know that right now we have a surging number of cases. 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. If you're -- if you are vaccinated it is lower at risk," she said in a briefing Friday.
The CDC is only recommending testing for travelers who are returning to the U.S. from international travel -- keeping in place an order it announced in mid-January that requires all US-bound passengers to present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding.
For fully vaccinated Americans, this updated CDC guidance relieves much of the stress that comes with incorporating COVID-19 restrictions into travel plans. The CDC does note, however, that Americans still need to follow the guidelines set by other countries for international travel, including testing or quarantining.
The new guidance comes as nearly a third of the country's adult population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC defines a person as "fully-vaccinated" two weeks after they’ve received their last dose. In the case of J&J, a one-shot vaccine, that means two weeks after the first and only shot. For Pfizer and Moderna, it's two weeks after the second shot.
The CDC is still recommending unvaccinated people avoid all nonessential travel.
"We haven't changed our guidance for nonessential travel at all. We are not recommending travel at this time, especially for unvaccinated individuals," Walensky said.
"Our guidance on an unvaccinated individual really is to limit travel to only essential travel with masking, protective -- prevention strategies. And so our update on this is really only for those who are vaccinated, and that represents about 20% of the adult population."
White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt also asked Americans not to travel unless necessary.
"It is safe to travel without quarantining if fully vaccinated. Still, with cases rising & variants spreading, non-essential travel is not recommended yet," he tweeted just as CDC released the new guidance.
The CDC has said it will continue to update guidance about how to socialize, travel and return to workplaces as more Americans get vaccinated. Fully vaccinated individuals can safely socialize indoors without masks or social distancing with other vaccinated individuals but should still avoid groups with unvaccinated people from multiple households, the CDC says.
When that guidance was released in early March, Walensky said the agency would wait to change travel recommendations until a higher percentage of Americans were vaccinated and the agency had more evidence regarding whether vaccinated individuals could spread the virus.
Despite previous warnings against travel from the CDC, the Transportation Security Administration has continued to see a considerable uptick in passengers as the vaccine rollout grows. More than a million people have passed through TSA checkpoints every day since March 11.
Walensky acknowledged that it is confusing to hear messages both about what vaccinated can do and the CDC asking people not to do them because of the concerning increase in the number of COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated people.
"The science shows us that getting fully vaccinated allows you to do more things safely, and it is important for us to provide that guidance, even in the context of rising cases. At the same time, we must balance this guidance with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to our rise in cases," she said.
"And that means we have to continue to reinforce messages about the critical importance of COVID-19 prevention measures."