The CDC Recommends Vaccinated People Shouldn’t Travel. They’re Wrong.

The CDC has new guidelines for people who have been vaccinated against Covid-19. They’re incredibly conservative. And while the federal government is telling vaccinated people they can spend time indoors and unmasked with small groups of other vaccinated people, or with relatives from a single household who haven’t been vaccinated, they’re still telling vaccinated people not to travel. But the reasons why make no sense.

The harm in ‘erring on the side of caution’ by the way is the opportunities foregone, the lives not lived in the meantime, as well as the message it sends about how little vaccination actually gives back to you. Soon we’re going to move from Vaccine Thunderdome where we fight to get a shot to where we’ll be begging vaccine hesitant people to get one. Telling those people it doesn’t actually restore much of their freedom – when the science supports otherwise – is a mistake.

I’ve argued that once fully vaccinated, most people can feel comfortable traveling again. The CDC says I’m wrong. Let’s have a look.

Travel By Vaccinated People Isn’t Driving The Virus

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Monday, “Every time there’s a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country.” But this isn’t actually true, and it misses the point completely.

First, travel isn’t driving the pandemic. There was no Labor Day spike in cases. Cases were already rising before July 4th and Thanksgiving, and simply continued along trend.

Moreover travel peaks have corresponded with holidays. It’s not the travel driving infection at those times, it’s indoor congregant activities over the holidays – families and friends gathering together indoors.

And in any case, Dr. Walensky is describing what she thinks happened with unvaccinated people, not vaccinated people.

Now, if you want to disagree with this, that’s fine, but show your work. An appeal to authority (‘but the CDC says so!’) simply begs the question here. An appeal to authority should be your last resort, not your first one, in any case.

Vaccines Protect People Enough That Most Can Travel

A vaccinated person is highly protected against bad outcomes. Protection from vaccines may vary with respect to symptoms but that’s not what we care about. All of the vaccines are incredibly protective against hospitalization (so we don’t overwhelm hospitals) and death. They may not be 100% protective, but they’re sure close. Widespread vaccination in Israel means the Pfizer-BioNTech shot is the most studied under real world conditions:

You’re protected when you’re vaccinated, not perfectly, but enough that most people would make a calculation that they can engage in more activities than the CDC advises. For instance they’ll eat in restaurants again.

And it’s the activities you engage in when you travel, rather than the travel itself, that was riskiest to begin with. Airports aren’t super-protective settings, but planes are safer than other crowded indoor environments. If you fly to a beach resort and stay in your room or down at the pool, you’re engaging in less risky behavior than people going to bars that were supposed to be at 50% capacity.

An older person with comorbidities will have a different calculation than a younger healthy person, perhaps, but vaccines are a significant input into the decision-making.

Vaccination Protects Other People – Not Just You

Could you be spreading the virus to other people? Again, less so while traveling if you keep a limited engagement footprint than if you stay home and do not. But we’re beginning to see just how protective vaccines are against spread, not just symptomatic infection.

We know that vaccines do not eliminate transmission risk, and that effectiveness against asymptomatic transmission varies by vaccine, but that all of the ones approved so far in the U.S. reduce asymptomatic infection and transmission substantially.

  • We knew this was highly likely from the start since vaccines “eliminate[d] asymptomatic infection” in primate studies and because monoclonal antibody therapies “reduce the viral load throughout the respiratory tract, including the nose.”

  • Israeli studies have found reduced asymptomatic infection, not just reduced symptomatic disease.

    During a follow-up period beginning seven days after the second dose, vaccinated subjects were 92 percent less likely to test positive for the coronavirus, 94 percent less likely to develop COVID-19 symptoms, and 92 percent less likely to suffer serious disease.

  • The CDC itself says Israeli studies show those who do develop Covid-19 post-vaccination “have a four-fold lower viral load than unvaccinated persons” so are much less likely to spread the disease (and if they do, it’s far more likely to be mild).

  • A Lancet study found infections (including asymptomatic infections) were reduced 85% seven days after a second vaccine dose where the U.K. B.1.1.7 variant was dominant as it is becoming in the U.S.

  • A Mayo Clinic study of 60,000 people found 88.7% effectiveness in preventing infection, not just symptoms.

There is no absolute guarantee that a vaccinated person cannot be carrying the virus and spread it, but the risk is substantially reduced compared to an unvaccinated person.

So What Are We Left With?

There’s a potential but low likelihood that someone could become sick while traveling, when they would have just stayed home and not ventured into a restaurant if they hadn’t traveled.

There’s a potential but low likelihood that someone could pick up an asymptomatic infection while traveling, and spread the virus, and that they wouldn’t have done so at home eating in a restaurant.

And there’s a potential but low likelihood they’ll pick up a variant of the virus with the E484K mutation found in the Brazilian and South African strains, even though they’re vaccinated, and spread those strains, though of course it’s B.1.1.7 that appears to be becoming dominant and vaccines are highly protective against those.

These risks by the way aren’t going to end this year or even next year, which is why airlines are asking the CDC “to publicly release the criteria it will use to adjust travel guidance.” The exceptionally low risk faced by and posed by vaccinated individuals hasn’t been enough for the CDC to lift its recommendation against travel. So what would it take? They won’t say.

Update: After writing this I came across a new piece in the Washington Post from Dr. Leana Wen,

This fails the common-sense test. The CDC said nearly a month ago that vaccinated individuals, if asymptomatic, do not need to quarantine or get tested if exposed to someone with covid-19. If risk of infection is so low that even exposure to the virus doesn’t require quarantine, why can’t we say that vaccinated people can resume activities around people who probably don’t have covid-19?

Take flying on an airplane. The risk of infection during air travel is already very low when all passengers are masked. Surely, that risk is even lower for vaccinated people. Why can’t the CDC say that vaccinated people can travel without having to quarantine or get tested?

In fact, I think it could go further and encourage those fully vaccinated to travel. The CDC can specify that they should still be careful once they get to their destination. Don’t go to parties with people of unknown vaccination status, for example, but it’s fine to visit extended family, go to beaches and parks and tour cultural sites (while wearing masks in public places).

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. […] Once you’re vaccinated you’re highly protected against the harms of Covid-19. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are incredibly effective against symptomatic Covid, though efficacy may be lower against some of the variants such as the South African and Brazilian mutations. More importantly though the vaccines are even more effective against severe Covid and hospitalization – even against the variants and are even being shown to prevent asymptomatic cases and thus transmission. For many of those that have been vaccinated it’s safe to travel. […]

Comments

  1. CDC has proven itself to be a useless government agency. In February 2020 I purchased N95 masks from Lowes before the CDC told everyone not to wear a mask. You know what the CDC was doing in February 2020, putting out Covid tests that did not work. The CDC had no plan to deal with a pandemic.. CDC had no plan in place for contact tracing to control the spread. They had no plan to get shots into arms. Even the phases for who should receive a shot first was pure ignorance. Luckily mosts states ignored the CDC guidelines and prioritized the older populations (the people who are most likely to be hospitalized and die) If it was up to the CDC people between the ages of 65 and 75 (CDC had them in Phase 1C) would still be waiting on shots behind, 20-30 year old police officers and other government employees, retail workers, etc.

    All last spring the CDC was pushing hand washing for a respiratory disease. I still have not seen one case study where a person got covid19 from a surface. The CDC should have been planning for a pandemic over the last 2 decades but as with most government agencies they react and never plan. September 11th proved that.

    I received my fist covid vaccine shot last week and booked my first trip that same day for the end of May. I have not been on a plane in 15 months. I decided early on to ignore the CDC advice and use common sense.

  2. You will receive a political answer and not one based on science as to whether vaccinated people can still transmit the virus.
    It’s all political now.

  3. DavidF: you be sure to come back here – if you are allowed to leave your house – when we all reach zero covid. We’ll wait.

  4. @HeathrowGuy – “just a few more months”

    That’s what they were saying a year ago. If you want to hide under your bed for “just a few more months” go right ahead, the rest of us are going to live our lives.

  5. Yes, please God, please continue to not travel. This is my prayer. Travel over the last year (50+
    flights) has been the most wonderful, fantastic, amazing, excellent time of my travel life. Nearly empty flights, no whiney people. Its been absolutely glorious. I am totally not looking forward to the return of all the ninnys on airplanes.

    Please let this continue!!!! STAY HOME!!! Shelter in place as your wonderful government has told you!

  6. @Brian L. – You won’t be “living your life” insofar as many countries remain horrified by American conduct during the pandemic and will not reopen to us this summer. Take it to the bank Canada and Schengen Europe will not reopen to Americans before September precisely because of the foolishness.

  7. @Billy Bob
    Trust me – where I live I fly domestically, I eat indoors in restaurants, I sit in the stadia to watch ball games. And I don’t need a mask.

    That’s because I live somewhere where we don’t tolerate ANY Covid cases. We lock down when we get a single case of community transmission.

    The paradox of the US/UK approach is that you refuse to do the simple things that wipe this easy-to-control virus out, in the name of your “personal freedom”, then end up with fewer freedoms than we actually have.

    Why don’t you look at more successful nations, like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan, and actually learn from people who are doing much better than you are?

    @Gary Leff, incredibly, talks of “lives not lived” due to the Pandemic, as if to say people don’t have the freedoms they do outside of a pandemic. That’s right – they cannot – like they cannot during a war.

    New Zealand’s population of 5 million would make it the 24th most populated state in the USA – right next to South Carolina.

    South Carolina has had 8,763 Covid deaths.
    New Zealand, with the same population, and more international flights, and more people living in towns and cities, has had 26 Covid deaths. And you can eat indoors, or go into a packed bar, or a packed stadium.

    It strikes me that, tragically, there are 528,000 important lives not being lived in the USA.

    Now would be a really good time for our American friends to listen and learn from people like us who are better at managing a pandemic. Especially since the highly effective pandemic rules which we follow were taught to us by own great-grandparents a century ago!

    We are not anti-American people sneering at you. We are people who love our American cousins and can’t believe that you keep making these crazy mistakes by opening up too much, too soon.

    Come back and talk to me about rights for vaccinated travellers when the entire country has received both doses!

  8. I wonder if it will get to the point that if people don’t vaccinate, their medical insurance plans will not cover them if the fall ill with the virus! 😉

  9. @HeathrowGuy – I am quite capable of living my life in open states/localities in the US, if I can’t go abroad.

    @David F. “The paradox of the US/UK approach is that you refuse to do the simple things that wipe this easy-to-control virus out, in the name of your “personal freedom”, then end up with fewer freedoms than we actually have.”

    The measures imposed by other countries are not legally possible in the US, as I have explained to you before. And the degree of freedom from this crap you have in the US depends on which state/locality you live in.

    “Why don’t you look at more successful nations, like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan, and actually learn from people who are doing much better than you are?”

    See above.

    “Now would be a really good time for our American friends to listen and learn from people like us who are better at managing a pandemic.”

    See above. Unless you’re suggesting we amend our Constitution which not only requires approval from 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of the state legislatures and takes YEARS.

    “We are not anti-American people sneering at you.”

    Sure seems like you are.

  10. @Brian L
    Your reference to your much vaunted Constitution, which I’m sure seemed a good idea at the time, ironically is what will/is tearing your country apart, and allowing hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. You can keep sticking Band-aids on it (Amendments as you call them) but seriously, it’s beyond repair.

  11. @Brian L.
    You can hide behind the constitution if you like. But if you are correct, that just shows that yours is a constitution that is failing, that is incapable of keeping people safe.

    But I don’t think that that is the case. The problem here is cultural.

    In places like Australia and New Zealand, in a pandemic we listen to our doctors and scientists and epidemiologists, and we expect and require unqualified morons like governors, presidents, business owners etc to do what the experts tell them to do.

    Our scientists are rock stars – you don’t find living treasures like Drs Ashley Bloomfield or Brett Sutton or Jeanette Young disrespected like their peer Fauci!

    In our countries by disagreeing with them you are universally recognised as an unqualified fool, and your opinion is automatically redirected to its rightful place – the garbage can.

    But too many countries which we previously respected a little more than we should have seem to allow their politicians to tamper with this. And the result is always catastrophic.

    Two days ago Standard and Poors declared that in the entire world, the Numbers 1 and 3 performing economies are those of the states of Western Australia and Queensland in Australia. Both are larger than Texas, and both have more than 85% of the population living in towns and cities.

    And both have progressive governments which practise zero tolerance for community transmission of Covid.

    One just saw the state government re-elected on the basis of keeping the population safe, the other is about to return its government in a landslide. BETWEEN THEM, two states with a combined population of 7 million – the same as Arizona – have had 15 deaths – while Arizona has had 16,326 deaths.

    Is it OK to accept inferiority on the basis that you have a bad constitution? To just say “I’m not listening to what works, I don’t care”.

    I love the USA and I want America to do as well as we are in a pandemic. Prematurely allowing recklessly selfish people (who are amongst the only currently vaccinated members of society) to spread new variants around the country and to import it from overseas is precisely how NOT to do better.

  12. @DavidL. – Considering the Constitution has survived since 1789 with less than 30 changes, I think it’s doing all right. And anyway, whether or not it’s bad isn’t the point. It’s the supreme law of the land. Those are the rules everyone is supposed to play by. It doesn’t have a pandemic exception. Period.

    You say you love the US, but when people question your “experts” you call them unqualified fools. I think you and I have different definitions of that word.

    Your government not accepting any community transmission of COVID is irrelevant. Firstly, as I’ve explained numerous times, you methods would not be legally permitted here. Secondly, once the disease is spreading, you really can’t contain it (partly due to the size and population density of parts of the country, partly because of the first point).

  13. American vaccines have not even tested inter human transmission. Nothing.
    That’s why many in the medical community do not even consider mrna products as vaccines because without this data they cannot be considered or approved as vaccines.
    That’s why the CDC never approved them as vaccines but as emergency use only.
    Now for those flying often even now, I would mention that taking Ivermectin prophylactically virtually eliminates your risk of contracting Covid .
    That applies to all variants (regulates cytoplasmic virus transfer, not spike dependant).
    It is available OTC in many part of the world.

  14. For those of us who should not be vaccinated due to pre-existing conditions and those of us who currently do not believe that the injection is likely to prove itself effective or even safe and without serious long term consequences :
    Forget the pleasure of travel because an unproven “vaccine” has become a mandatory prerequisite.
    So much BS. Communicable disease comes and then goes. Vaccine or no vaccine.
    The numbers are used to prove the vaccine works are easily manipulated. You can do the math but if you utilize numbers that are not correct you are arriving at a false interpretation of what is actually happening.

  15. Rules by fools… all politics and no science. There is no point in any of this if we can’t feel safe about going about our business after being fully vaccinated… F___k the CDC. They’ve been wrong from the beginning… and, for those who have had major problems in income over the past year, just remember that EVERY SINGLE government employee has not missed a paycheck throughout all of this.

  16. @DavidF – You seem to be very proud that Australia and New Zealand have beaten Covid. I’m certainly happy that the populations of those countries have not suffered like most of the west. But it’s much more complicated. NZ and Australia barely had an outbreak at all. They were simply lucky. Many other places had massive outbreaks before they even knew it. Europe (mainly Italy, Spain, France, UK, among others) and USA (mainly NYC metro) likely had massive outbreaks which don’t appear in the case counts as testing for the new virus was scarce. Once it spreads widely, drastic lockdown measures are required which I’m not sure any Western democracy would have agreed too (such as the early Wuhan restrictions). Make no mistake, you are NOT out of the woods. There will likely be rolling lockdowns for many years, every time one case is discovered. Or they may never open up to foreigners from countries where Covid is eventually endemic. The idea of eradicating Covid is a fantasy at this point, and unless you are willing to accept indefinite restrictions on travel and rolling lockdowns, Covid will be a looming threat. The vaccine will help but is unlikely to eradicate it.

  17. @Gary – The CDC is doing a great job at creating vaccine skeptics. All the rules, and the changing of the rules have many questioning the competence of our public health authorities. Blue states were forced to live in lockdown while red states were almost completely open. People wonder why the blue states didn’t do any better on Covid than the red states. It just seems political.

  18. DavidF, Australia and NZ have orders of magnitude fewer international connection than the US and Europe. Not comparable.

  19. Few government agencies have lost the public’s confidence as has the CDC and the doctor not working in that agency but who knows a great deal about epi- and pan-demics, Dr. Anthony Fauci. By their pronouncements, warnings and advice they’ve enabled power-hungry governors to cause major, and in some instances irreparable, harm to children, their parents, the elderly, small businesspeople and others.

    Like the boy who cried “wolf”, they’ve said far too much, at times dumbing down their pronouncements because they believed the public to ignorant to understand the evidence and the facts. They’ve treated “science” as if it were a series of truths to be handed down as Moses did the Ten Commandments.

    Dr Fauci needs to retire either voluntarily or at his boss’s insistence. The CDC’s administration needs a thorough review and some staff disciplined and or dismissed.

    They, our current president & his advisors, and the congress are sewing the wind. The whirlwind they will reap will tear through our lives like a tornado.

  20. @ Vazir Mukhter – Dr. Fauci is Director of U.S. Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases.

    Dr. Fauci has served in that position since appointed by Pres. Ronald Reagan.

    Donald Trump appointed Robert Redfield as Director of the CDC in 2018. He was under Trump’s thumb and did as Trump ordered. The blunders made by the CDC were caused by Donald Trump, not Dr. Fauci.

  21. @DavidF:

    “Why don’t you look at more successful nations, like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan, and actually learn from people who are doing much better than you are?”

    Gee, did you notice they all ISLANDS with authoritative governments?

    Hell, we can’t even stop thousands pouring over our Southern border.

    Let us know the next time you want to compare apples and oranges.

    Why don’t you look at the ACTUAL numbers from John Hopkins:

    Population of the U.S. is 330,000,000.

    Total number infected: 29,004,238, or 8.79% of the U.S. population.

    Total number of deaths: 525,213, which is 1.81% of the number infected, and 0.16% of the total population in the U.S.

    So a little more than a tenth of one percent of the U.S. population. Yep, let’s destroy the world economy for that.

    And how many of them would have died from other causes even if COVID did not exist?

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