CDC Updates International COVID Travel Risk Standards

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  • The CDC recently updated its health travel notification system to Level 4 reservations for special circumstances.
  • Individuals can check the COVID-19 risk level at their destination to see what precautions they should take before, during and after planned travel abroad.
  • Experts said it was important to have a plan in place in case a traveler tests positive in another country.

To inform travelers about the urgent treatment of COVID-19 around the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a travel health notification system for international destinations. Now, the system has been reconfigured to help travelers understand when their level of anxiety is most pressing.

The highest risk category, Level IV, is now reserved for special circumstances, which include:

  • Rapid escalation or rise in the number of coronavirus cases
  • The emergence of a new type of anxiety
  • The collapse of the healthcare infrastructure

Meanwhile, levels III, II and ONE are still determined by 28 days of occurrence or number of cases. Experts said the new system continues to help travelers assess their travel risks.

Benefits of the Travel Health Notice System

The CDC’s Health Travel Notification System aims to help travelers measure 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 Reiwill. “It will help people think about the risks they might face when traveling to certain countries.”

For example, travelers often consider their individual health and the health system of their destination to assess whether they can obtain the necessary care if they need it. The updated CDC system maintains level 4 for destinations where travelers are not advised to travel, regardless of vaccination status.

“It’s a way to simplify the rates of community transmission within a given country,” Christopher Scuderi, a family physician at Florida Health University in Jacksonville, told Ristwell. “If a country is rated higher than Level Three, especially as a country of four, this helps travelers make an informed decision based on their personal risk whether they should continue to travel or postpone their trip.”

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

Meanwhile, it may not deter those who have accepted the risks of the pandemic – and travel as planned despite high levels of transmission – by the travel health advisory, but it may encourage them to choose different activities if they travel to a high-risk country. He added that they can choose to take long walks or eat outdoors instead of going indoors.

What does this mean for you

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

How to keep yourself safe while traveling

MacDonald and Scudery recommend that people who intend to travel consult a health care provider beforehand to discuss risks, especially for those who are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19.

“We know that vaccination and boosters are the most important precautions anyone can take to avoid severe COVID-19 and potential death,” MacDonald said. “This is true at home and when traveling internationally.”

Since a federal judge in Florida declared a mask mandate for public transportation unconstitutional, many travel authorities have stopped requiring masks. The Justice Department recently appealed the ruling, but the travel mask mandate has not yet been activated.

However, MacDonald said that wearing high-quality, appropriate masks at airports or planes where many people from different places are sitting in close proximity can reduce the risk of contracting the virus. It is also important to understand the rapidly changing rules around testing, quarantine and isolation, she added.

“Learn about the guidelines for entering the country you are traveling to as well as testing options when returning to the United States,” Scuderi said. “There is often a lot of paperwork to do once you arrive and it can take a while. Each country will also have certain time limits on when they can be filled in. It can be helpful to set an alarm on your phone when each document is due.”

MacDonald noted that travelers should also consider a plan if they test positive in another country, which would require them to extend their stay before they can return home. This is even more important for families with children.

“It’s also important to be prepared for the unexpected,” Scuderi said. “Educate your children about any current mutations and how to best handle your travels as a team. Make a contingency plan for what will happen if you fall ill while you are away.”

The information in this article is current as of the date mentioned, which means that more recent information may be available when you read this. For the latest updates on COVID-19, visit the Coronavirus news page.

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