CDC Updates Criteria for International Travel COVID Risks

COVID-19 travel illustration.

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Key Takeaways

  • The CDC recently updated their Travel Health Notice system to reserve level four for special circumstances.
  • Individuals can check the COVID-19 risk level of their destination to know the precautions they need to take before, during, and after their planned overseas travel.
  • It’s important to establish a plan in case the traveler tests positive in another country, experts said.

To inform travelers about the pressing COVID-19 treat around the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established a Travel Health Notice system for international destinations. Now, the system has been reconfigured to help travelers understand when the level of concern is most urgent.

The highest risk category, level four, is now reserved for special circumstances, which include:

  • Rapidly escalating or an extremely high number of COVID-19 cases
  • The emergence of a new variant of concern
  • Healthcare infrastructure collapse

Meanwhile, levels three, two, and one are still determined by 28-day incidence or case counts. Experts said the new system continues to help travelers weigh the risks of their travel.

Benefits of the Travel Health Notice System

The Travel Health Notice system established by the CDC is intended to help travelers gauge the risk of their destination and plan accordingly to protect themselves before, during, and after their travel. 

“The new system makes sense from a public health perspective,” Pia MacDonald, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist at RTI International, told Verywell. “It will help people think through the risks they could face traveling to certain countries.”

For instance, travelers often consider their individual health and the health system of their destination to assess whether they can get the necessary care if they needed to, she added. The updated CDC system reserves level four for destinations that travelers are not recommended to travel to, regardless of vaccination status.

“It is a way to simplify community transmission rates within a particular country,” Christopher Scuderi, DO, a family physician at the University of Florida Health in Jacksonville, told Verywell. “If a country is rated as a higher level three, and especially as a four, it helps travelers make an informed decision based on their personal risks whether they should continue to travel or postpone their trip.”

There is a continuum of how people approached traveling during the pandemic, especially during the past year. For those with high-risk medical issues, CDC’s recommendations have been helpful in guiding whether they should travel, Scuderi said.

Meanwhile, those who have accepted the risks of the pandemic—and are traveling as planned despite higher levels of transmission—might not be deterred by the travel health notice, but it may encourage them to choose different activities if they do travel to a high-risk country. They can choose to go hiking or eat outdoors instead of going to indoor places, he added.

What This Means For You

Before traveling internationally, make sure to check the CDC’s COVID-19 Travel Recommendations page to check the COVID-19 risk of your destination.

How to Remain Safe While Traveling

MacDonald and Scuderi recommend that people who intend to travel consult a healthcare provider prior beforehand to discuss the risk, especially for those who are more likely to have complications with COVID-19.

“We know being vaccinated and boosted is the most important precaution a person can take to avoid severe COVID-19 and possible death,” MacDonald said. “This is true at home and when traveling internationally.”

Since a federal judge in Florida declared the mask mandate for public transportation unconstitutional, many travel authorities have stopped requiring masks. The Department of Justice recently appealed the ruling, but the travel mask mandate has yet to be put back in effect.

Nonetheless, wearing high-quality and well-fitting masks in airports or airplanes where many people from different places are sitting in close proximity can reduce the risk of getting infected with the virus, MacDonald said. It’s also important to understand the quickly-changing rules around testing, quarantine, and isolation, she added.

“Learn the guidelines for entry for the country you’re traveling to as well as testing options upon returning to the U.S.,” Scuderi said. “There is often a lot of paperwork to do once you arrive and it can take some time. Each country will also have certain time constraints on when to fill them out. It may be helpful to set an alarm on your phone for when each documentation is due.”

Travelers must also think through a plan if they test positive in another country, which would require them to extend their stay before being able to return home, MacDonald noted. This is even more important for families with children.

“It’s also important to prepare for the unexpected,” Scuderi said. “Educate your children on any current surges and how to best approach your travels as a team. Set a contingency plan for what would happen if you got sick while you were away.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC mask order remains in effect and CDC realigns travel health notice system.

By Carla Delgado
Carla M. Delgado is a health and culture writer based in the Philippines.