CDC Director Makes False Claim About Travel Causing Virus Spread

On Monday the Director of the CDC urged Americans not to travel, claiming it exacerbates the spread of Covid-19. However she,

  • Fails to explain how she thinks this happens
  • Makes no distinction between those who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t been
  • And offers an argument that is simply false to bolster her case

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reiterated during a White House COVID-19 briefing that Americans should limit travel.

Travel, she explained, only exacerbates the spread of COVID-19.

…”We have been consistently discouraging travel, saying, ‘Please keep it limited to only essential travel.'”

It’s literally true that someone infected with a virus can bring it to someplace else where the virus isn’t already spreading in the community via travel. But it isn’t true to say that travel is driving cases or hospitalization in the U.S. where the virus is already spreading broadly. And it isn’t correct to say, as she does, that travel is causing spikes.

First she offers that cases are rising somewhat again in the U.S. at the same time that travel is rising. That’s an overly simplistic view.

If correlation were causation what would we say about Texas which has its lowest level of cases in 9 months, and fewest hospitalizations in 6 months, three weeks after dropping its mask mandate and re-opening bars at 100%? Clearly something else is going on here. Cases have generally continued to decline in the southern half of the country, and grown in the northern half.

Credit: New York Times

The biggest increases are coming from places like New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. There’s not even a correlation with cases and mask mandates or business closures. Sure, Florida – one of the hottest aviation markets – has seen a small increase but it’s nothing compared to the Northeast.

There’s a plausible case this is a function of temperature and variants, but it’s hard to argue that it’s because of travel. Indeed the rate of decrease in Covid cases slowed before travel had picked up. But Walensky makes an even broader claim,

What we’re seeing now is more travel than we saw – than we saw throughout the pandemic, including the Christmas and New Year’s holidays,” she said.

She added that the country has seen a COVID case surge following every holiday since the pandemic’s onset. “I would just sort of reiterate the recommendations from CDC, saying please limit travel to essential travel for the time being.”

Walensky ties spikes in the virus with holiday travel. But that simply doesn’t match the data.

  • Covid was already on the upswing prior to July 4th. In fact two weeks after that holiday cases began to decline.

  • The low point after the summer case surge came following Labor Day.

  • The ‘third wave’ of cases began in October, and – a dip in reporting over the Thanksgiving holiday while data slowed aside – there was no break in trend following Thanksgiving.

  • Two weeks after Christmas we began to see a decline in cases from the top.

Credit for Graph of Cases to New York Times

When people gather for holidays in their home town they can spread the virus. When they travel they may see even fewer people than if they’d stayed home. Travel itself isn’t what’s risky. It’s what you do at your destination. That’s the guidance CDC should be offering – to avoid crowded, poorly-ventilated indoor spaces.

Travel doesn’t seem to be the driver, and holidays don’t either which you can clearly see in Italy and France (and France by the way has domestic travel restrictions in place in lockdown regions but that didn’t stop their surge).

Credit: Google

Credit: Google

In any case vaccinated people should be able to travel. The CDC’s own study finds that vaccinated people are neither at significant risk of contracting the virus nor are they a significant risk for spreading it. Young children may face even less risk than vaccinated adults.

Some people – including travelers – are acting like the pandemic is over. It’s not. That’s why it’s so important to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Risks will remain after that, but they should be manageable ones.

The CDC has done a tremendous amount to sully its reputation during the pandemic. A new director gives the agency a fresh start. She should be telling scientific truths and offering cogent explanations. As a way to try to make sense out of why the CDC would be telling even the vaccinated to stay home some have even tried to make arguments that it would be unfair to those who haven’t had a chance to get the shot yet. Otherwise, what is even the argument here?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. She is the same person who exclaimed at a press conference that she is scared of the rate of spread of covid. Health professionals should be less alarmist and deal in facts, not feelings.

  2. At least she’s 100x better than the previous health experts under trump. A little bit cautious but that’s probably a good thing during a global pandemic.

  3. I think you are underestimating the effect travel has on the dissemination of the viral variants across the country/the world, as well as the potential compromise to proper social distancing when we travel.

  4. The CDC director has now shown on numerous occasions, by lying and twisting the facts, that she is utterly incompetent to run the agency. She needs to be removed immediately.

  5. Logical argument but what explains the surge in northern states as vaccination is rolling out at a good pace? We need to get the demographics of the recent infections to try and determine the cause. The southern theory is consistent with the cases of the flu virus in general and Florida seems obvious with all the spring break activity. Those party animals don’t give a crap if they kill off their grandparents as that produces a wealth transfer to them.
    This is becoming a generational war. 81% of deaths are over the age of 65.

  6. this is an incredibly simplistic commentary that misses the entire reason for rising cases noted by the CDC. the rise in Michigan is entirely due to the exponential increase on the B117 variant. unclear how travel did not and will not contribute to this rise.

  7. Could COVID-19 test falsely label vaccinations as “infections”? That would be explain the increase in the north.

  8. @Ed – certainly not for the mRNA vaccines or a viral vector vaccine which presents only the spike protein [in other words for vaccines approved in the U.S., no]

  9. @Scott B.1.1.7 was seeded months ago, stopping travel doesn’t change that. But a vaccinated person is highly unlikely to contract or spread B.1.1.7.

  10. @Paul – Cmon, all deaths are 80+% of those over 65. We have been trained in the past 12 months to associate a COVID positive to mean that is what is actually killing people. Excess mortality rate is what matters and those have only risen slightly over the past year. Old people are going to die.

  11. The chart of cases over time provided in this post supports the statement of the CDC Director and refutes the claims made here.

    A bullet point in the post states: “Two weeks after Christmas we began to see a decline in cases from the top.” In fact the chart just below this statement shows just the opposite. After a dip for a couple of days, starting Jan. 1, there was a tremendous spike in the seven-day average to the highest level ever. That spike followed a similar pattern after Thanksgiving travel as depicted in the same chart.

    We are all entitled to opinions. However I find the word of a medical doctor who was Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital to be far more credible than travel bloggers who have no such training or experience.

    Common sense also says that movement of infected people and interaction with others causes spread. Travelers interact with more people, not fewer, than those who stay at home.

  12. Gary, I’d suggest you use “questionable claim” rather than “false claim” here. The claim appears to be poorly supported, but is not demonstrably false. It may be a bit unfair to single you out for this, since most news sources these days tend to use absolute terms very freely, as the distinction between opinion and fact seems increasingly unimportant to them.

  13. Travel by itself doesn’t spread Covid. Travel does enable new variants to move from place to place, but an infected person not following social distancing guidelines can more easily spread that news variant, possibly to someone else who traveled. The spring break crowd is enables spreading to to other spring break crowds, which then can take it back to their local communities. Whether this is the cause of Michigan and other northern outbreak is hard to say. But people in Texas don’t have to travel to Florida to find nice weather.

  14. With slow credit card sign ups I see you’ve become an epidemiologist with a specialty in infectious disease transmission. While you have an opinion and a platform – might be better to stay in your lane.

  15. @albert. Current excess mortality rate would put us closer to 900k dead from Covid TY over LY.
    Mexico just admitted they were under counting deaths by 60% (using excess deaths Y/Y).
    Do the math vs regurgitating the propaganda.
    Look at the money we now save on SS benefits by killing off the elderly but probably offset by the increased healthcare costs.

  16. A CDC Director who is near tears while warning of “impending doom” does not inspire public confidence. As Gary pointed out, she omitted much critical information. Who is at risk (certainly not the millions who have immunity from prior exposure or vaccination), why are they at risk (are they Spring Break party types, Southern Border “immigrants,” or just careless, high risk individuals,) what are their ages and where do they live? She did not even come close to making a case that “travel” is a cause of this “doom.”

  17. Let’s see, who to believe…. The CDC Director,

    or a travel shill?

    Stay in your lane.

  18. Just something to consider when when using travel data and case trends.

    For the most part, the case trends are showing you where it is that people live that are testing positive. Florida not seeing a big spike just means that local Floridians are not seeing an increase in cases.

    What we don’t know is the origination of infections. For example, is the big spike in Michigan due to travel to Florida and then testing positive on their return to Michigan?

  19. The virus is capable of traveling six feet on its own – maybe 10 feet if there’s a good breeze. Other than the first handful of people to contract it from the original source, literally every single one of the now 128,494,178 cases of Covid have come about because of human travel. I’m at an utter loss how someone could think that travel does not cause the spread of the virus.

  20. @Matt “Other than the first handful of people to contract it from the original source, literally every single one of the now 128,494,178 cases of Covid have come about because of human travel”

    No, not the kind of travel the CDC Director is talking about.

    Most people infected with the virus don’t spread it. Most spread happens as a result of a relatively small number of people in superspreader events, generally in crowded, indoor, poorly ventilated spaces.

    Sure, travel brought the virus from country-to-country (unless you believe China’s theory about frozen foods). But that’s not the claim the CDC Director is making. It’s that travel spikes lead to spikes in cases. And that’s not supported by her own agency’s data. Furthermore, she makes no distinction with regard to *who* is spreading the virus, and yesterday her own agency said it’s very rate for it to be someone that’s vaccinated.

  21. If this is a “generation war”, than young people are loosing it because of Covid lock downs and restrictions. I am not even talking about kids out of school for a year. How about CBS report on obesity due to pandemic: “The study also broke down the data by age group, finding 48% of millennials reported weight gain. This group reported the highest average weight gain at 41 pounds. Just over half of Gen Z adults reported undesired weight gain, with an average gain of 28 pounds. ” Think about it – 41 lb weight gain on average! That must shorten and decrease the quality of life substantially and this is for 48% of millennials. Compare that to the Covid-19 death rate for 80 years old in USA. While I do not have the Covid death rate for that age group, note that the average life expectancy in the United States is 9.1 years for 80-year-old white women and 7.0 years for 80-year-old white men, and., I think, it shorter for non-white.

  22. @Gary –

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. Agree with you totally about vaccinated people – believe me, once I get that second shot I’m planning to hit the road myself – but since most people still are not vaccinated (esp. young people who travel more) I think it’s still sensible to focus on them.

    You are quite right that much spread is through ordinary-course activities (bars, restaurants etc and not the specific *act* of travel per se). But I think you overlook the following:
    – 1. There are still plenty of aspects of travel that are uniquely dangerous. Not so much airplanes, sure, due to air filtering and mask usage. But people also travel by bus and train and those are not as safe. There is also time in the inside of terminals, inside airport lounges, inside packed airport trams, sharing a closed space with a cab driver to and from the airport, etc. Those are all real contact points that are unique to travel, and cumulative upon day-to-day activities.
    -2. People naturally tend to do more socializing when they travel than when at home. Jane and John might be totally content to sit at home most nights, cook or order takeout, and maybe see friends once or twice a week. But during that week of vacation in Fort Lauderdale or Cancun, they’re going out every night. Also, when they socialize at home they’re generally seeing the same people over and over. On vacation they’re partying with an entirely new crowd, especially if they’re young. More contact points, more possibility of spread to someone new.

    Also, while you rightly acknowledge the possible spread into new geographical areas, I think you downplay this. There are still wide swaths of the country where the virus hasn’t penetrated, especially small rural towns. Wandering around the Upper West Side as a superspreader isn’t as dangerous because 25% or so of the population you encounter has already had the virus and is largely immune. Exploring a rural town in West Virginia (or coming back to there if it’s where you live, after exposures elsewhere) introduces the virus to brand new population where it can spread like wildfire. There are still plenty of pockets of America that are vulnerable to this (and they are also the places where vaccine uptake is lowest, so they will remain vulnerable longer).

    Finally, you mention the statistics about travel as correlated with spread. Don’t forget that the numbers since December reflect the growing effect of a massive vaccination effort, which sort of confounds the relationship between the two. Also, while I love statistics as much as the next guy, any good numbers person will tell you to be distrust of a mathematically derived conclusion if it contradicts common sense (read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise about this – a lot of stats is just noise, and he knows this well). I think for the reasons I mention above, common sense really has to win out here.

    Love your blog and the work you do, and I think you’re right about a lot of aspects of travel, particularly the safety of the interior of planes. But I do think you’re steering your readers awry on this.

  23. Health professionals should bury their head in the sand like they did for the past 4 years. Of course air travel causes spread. That’s common sense.

  24. At this point, anyone who believes the CDC, or Fauci… is the village idiot at this point.

    The assumptions on IFR were – wrong.
    The scare mongering – evil.
    That masks do anything – wrong.
    That the world needed to shut down – wrong.
    That lockdowns work – wrong.

    The data is so crystal clear on this if you have one living brain cell – you see it.
    But, the masses LOVE safety, at any cost, and they keep cheering.

    It’s like watching people at a tail gate, totally drunk, trying to explain why their team is the best.

    You all got had.
    You all got lied to.

    And you all celebrated as the world burned to the ground.
    Fauci and the CDC people should be locked up for the rest of their lives so they can’t hurt others.
    All the governments that locked healthy people inside, should be burned to the ground.

    You all got led to the slaughter, and you can’t stop telling everyone else to be terrified.
    99.8X% survival rate.

    And you people folded up and cried for a year.
    Unreal that this is the world we live in.

  25. It’s important that we are clear on what the goal is here. What level of spread is acceptable. We have come down a lot from the high point in Dec/Jan. But that high point was never acceptable – it was catastrophic. We really should be aiming to get down to the May/June levels of last year before things start widely opening up. The rate of spread and the number of receptive carriers is what matters here. We can open up now and have the thing continue to percolate at moderate levels in the community for months (or years), or we can wait a couple more months until vaccination rates are in the 70% level and effectively kill it completely. It will likely never totally go away (particularly in the context of the global community), but if a handful of people get it from an event, but cannot spread it beyond themselves, then that’s stable. Right now, that handful of people still have the ability to spread covid widely.

  26. Let’s all be honest.
    The MOVEMENT of people increases the spread of any infectious disease.
    Any epidemiologist would be happy for everyone to stay away from everyone else in order to stop the spread of disease but that is not realistic.
    Epidemiologists don’t have to worry about the economic impacts of their decisions or even balance other health-related issues including mental health or longer-term non-infectious disease issues.

    We will never be in agreement as a country about how covid was handled.

    However, it should be very clear that countries like Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand that had very, very low covid cases also were able to completely shut their borders AND also restricted the movement of people even in their own countries.

    The US simply is incapable LEGALLY of restricting the movement of healthy people within the country and the EU, US, Brazil and Mexico cannot shut their borders to the rest of the world. TO no one’s surprise, those countries have had the highest covid cases and deaths on a per capita basis.

    Travel in and of itself is not the problem. Epidemiologists can’t fix all of the reasons for disease spread so they target every activity that might contribute.

    Until every potential source of disease spread, including sealing the US’ borders, is taken, it is hypocritical to talk about eliminating travel or other activities.

  27. Ben says “ can we just trust the experts and not this “travel guru”

    Ben and other sheep on this forum. Have you ever considered the fact that the so called experts could be and have been wrong in the past. They’re word is not indisputable and you don’t have to be a medical expert to see some of the fallacies in their reasoning. Learn to think for yourselves and stop criticizing others who do.

  28. The CDC is losing all credibility with me. I have always been a supporter of the CDC and definitely believe in science. In fact, I wear a mask and support the wearing of a mask. But, the alarmist rhetoric from the CDC is becoming tedious and lacks firm science behind it.

  29. “False claim?” I think the director of the CDC is a heck of a lot more qualified to talk about the spread of covid than some travel blogger. You talk about Florida, but Florida leads the country in variant cases and their state government has repeatedly engaged in some shady reporting when it comes to their case numbers. Studies out today show that Florida has undercounted thousands of deaths from covid. Let alone many of the tourists infected in florida go home and Florida doesn’t count those cases. The states seeing surges had recently lifted a lot of restrictions and all of a sudden they started seeing surges, mostly caused by the more contagious variants. Can’t even believe you are trying to bring up masks. Are you trying to say masks don’t work even though we have study after showing that they do? You are aware that there are dozens of cases in the Orlando area where people who were fully vaccinated have been infected by covid right? Please stop writing opinions about a subject that you clearly are not qualified to write about. There is enough misinformation out there already. There was a 12% increase of covid cases this week over last week. It is time to listen to the experts before we are thrown into yet another surge.

  30. First, thank you Gary for such an excellent post!

    Based upon the data, there appears to be a correlation between the rise in cases and not having mask mandates. Based upon the data, the Federal government’s wanting mask mandates brought back to states without mandates is not following the science.

    It seems to me that the government officials are not understanding how the disease is spreading, so they are targeting things like travel because they are easy targets. I would rather have an honest CDC where people admit that they don’t know what the cause is of the increase than one that makes up things to blame and imposes measures and recommendations to make it seem like they are doing something.

  31. @Gary, Your chart shows spikes in cases within a few days of the end of increased travel during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. This evidence clearly supports the CDC Director’s statement that travel increases spread.

    If you disagree, please explain your reasoning for your readers.

  32. @gary. What is your educational background to justify that the current cdc director is wrong? You’re exactly speaking like economists fighting with public health scientists. You tried to argue with the data, but clearly you don’t know what you are talking about.

  33. @Bill says:
    “I think the director of the CDC is a heck of a lot more qualified to talk about the spread of covid than some travel blogger”

    You’re absolutely right, Bill–the CDC director is far more qualified to address these issues than any of us. When we spread false conclusions or rumors on these blogs, we are guilty of ignorance or false confidence.

    But when educated professionals pass along conclusions that don’t pass the smell test, such as suggesting that even vaccinated people should not travel, its on them — not us.

  34. Anyone else see the total disconnect between Congress/White House and the CDC directives?

    We just, again, gave U.S. airlines billions and billions of dollars to keep them flying. The CDC continues to discourage Americans from flying (i.e. travel).

    Perhaps if we had not pissed away the billions to the airlines, there would not be the plethora of opportunities to travel that the new CDC Director eschews.

    Just saying………

  35. The “Travel is causing COVID to spread” claim falls apart when you look at the charts.

    Even this most recent increase in cases in the northern states began before March, when travel actually picked up. That isn’t even accounting for the week or so lag time between contact with the virus and a positive test.

    Spring Break in most northern states didn’t begin until at least last week, plus most of these Northern states have the lowest levels of travel in the country.

  36. This is a grumpy post, Gary, and your armchair epidemiology is really unhelpful.
    The CDC isn’t stopping travel; they are making recommendations that individuals are free to heed or not. We are in a race to vaccinate people before they are infected by these variants. These variants came here from the UK and South Africa and Brazil. They would not be currently spreading across our country now without unvaccinated people traveling and infecting others. They are spreading and taking hold across the US right now one family gathering or group beach trip at a time.
    I share your love of travel and am eager to see a robust travel season in the coming months to see the industry get back on track. That will only happen if people continue to get vaccinated and new infections drop below where we are today. Only 16% of the country is fully vaccinated right now and even for them, while the vaccines are very good, they are not a force field for everyone when there is a lot of COVID in the community. A serious spike of illness, hospitalization and death in April and May – which is what the CDC is warning about – will set back by months the return to travel in the summer months. I hope we can agree that outcome is a bad thing. Throw in a few serious illnesses and deaths of fully vaccinated people (which will happen from time to time, see the data from the Pfizer rollout in Israel) and the travel industry is far worse off.

  37. Pushing for a return to normal travel, in the midst of a pandemic, does not come across as safe, or well thought out.

    Sure, you can say people can travel, but are they really safe? Is it worth the extra risk? You have a large part of the population who are either unable or unwilling to be vaccinated. These people can be asymptomatic carriers… Is it really worth that risk? To be a statistic? To be a carrier that (while the person comes through fine) can cause some other person to fall ill?

    I know there are certain groups or parts of the population which requires travel, or have a legitimate need. But the general population, who have no immediate or real need other than to be out of the house, is it necessary when there are still very real risks? Until we have a much larger part of the population vaccinated, is travel worth it?

  38. @Amazing Larry Watching Fox News doesn’t count as educating yourself. Hate to break it to you.

  39. So I have just finished reading all these comments.
    I am amazed….
    The seniors accounted for ore than 80% of deaths..
    The cry across this nation was get them vaccinated and the country will be fine.
    That’s almost done.
    The rest of the population, especially folks between 18 and 50, may get covid..but they probably won’t be hospitalized or die. And, many of them have already been vaccinated.
    Our country was in a severe crisis. Thank the Lord.. That’s over. As each day passes, two million or more are being vaccinated.
    So unless you are a senior or a vulnerable person, why should any activity be restricted? Seniors and vulnerable folks have been vaccinated.
    The real question is why isn’t this truth being told by the CDC or other governmental agencies?
    It’s that simple.

  40. “Pushing for a return to normal travel, in the midst of a pandemic, does not come across as safe, or well thought out.”

    No one has to push. It’s happening on its own accord. Have you traveled lately? I have domestic and international. I’ve seen airports like ORD at almost pre-covid levels. Many restaurants at airports are reopening. Flights are full. Reasonable people have concluded that air travel is safe and they have chosen to do so. I have done so safely many times. And I’ll admit, there is a part of me that is tired of constantly having to cater to the lowest common denominators in society. Some people are not responsible. I’m tired of having to modify my behavior because of them.

  41. The CDC over the last year has proven itself to be another useless government agency.

  42. They should just say travel responsibly. If you are vaccinated still be cautious. If you are not vaccinated please stay out of crowds, wear a mask, and social distance. I have traveled only twice a year, once for vacation and once was necessary but I believe you can travel responsibly. Indoor gathering from Thanksgiving until after New Years’ did cause a spike in the already rising cases, I have no doubt about that but being on a plane with a mask did not cause it.

  43. The CDC Director has repeatedly shown a complete lack of competence in understanding Covid transmission — mirroring the lack of competence by other supposed “experts” in the field. When the people in charge — who supposedly are medical “experts” — are completely incompetent, there is zero possibility of a thoughtful discussion of this issue on a travel blog. It’s a national disgrace, but it won’t change during the Biden Administration — unless the folks on the Left finally decide they want to pay attention to science and data. I’m not holding my breath.

  44. Interesting. How did the “China” virus get here and around the globe in the first place? Radio-waves?

    What do Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Singapore and a few other countries have in common? They’ve managed to stop the virus by drastically reducing/eliminating travel along with shutdowns.

    Claiming that travel is increasing the risk of new COVID-19 transmissions is not false. It’s not even controversial. It’s common sense.

    Insisting that it isn’t — that’s way more controversial than what she said.

    Even if community spread is the main culprit in new spikes, travel still adds to the misery. Unvaccinated people should avoid unnecessary travel, period.

    The fully vaccinated, however, should get the green light to travel and more aggressively. Even if just to persuade the fear-mongers to get the damn shots.

  45. I’d add that the recorded data is such a mess, lagging behind cases and deaths so that you can’t even correlate spikes with dates. Some states – Florida, for example – are worse at this than others.

    Travel increases spread. It’s not controversial, it’s a fact. Whether it does it to any significant extent is a fair question; but honestly, I don’t need that answered by a bunch of anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-lockdown, pro-Trump pundits on this website.

  46. I have been on at least 25 flights during the pandemic. I get a Covid test after just about every trip. Have never had Covid, and have never been contacted by a contact tracer about exposure to someone with Covid on a flight.

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