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, 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. @ Gary — I received Moderna dose #1 yesterday, and I am now going to ignore the government and media fear-mongering. Of course, I will wear a mask as long as needed/required, but I will stop wearing two masks, stop being afraid of people getting near me, and stop being afraid of flying. I am no doctor, but I would guess that one has pretty close to full protection within a few days of receiving the first dose, so it is time to fly! YAY!

  2. Always expect the CDC to be extra conservative in their directives. They always practice “cya” so as not to be held responsible for any possible, if remote, outcome.

  3. @Gene – I’m sure there’s some protection within a week of the first dose and Moderna’s trial suggested ~ 80% effectiveness against symptomatic Covid two weeks after the first shot. Waiting until your body responds fully to the first dose is all that’s happening with the one dose JNJ vaccine, of course! But I’d be a little bit careful about “pretty close to full protection within a few days.” That may not be quite right.

  4. @Gene – CDC says two weeks. I’ve had my 2nd dose of Moderna and will fly as soon as that period is over.

  5. “Every time there’s a surge in travel, we have a surge in cases in this country.”

    How completely dense.

    Travel, in and of itself, is not a covid-risky behavior. The things people do when they travel – staying with friends and relatives, going out to restaurants and bars, etc., etc., are covid risky behaviors. CDC misserves the public when it fails to say “go ahead and travel but avoid covid risky behaviors”.

  6. @ Gary – It’s not your article ,it’s you publicly stating that the CDC is wrong.
    There’s nothing in your bio that states you have medical experience.

    Your heading: They’re Wrong.

  7. @Gene, full protection is in place 2 weeks after your “2nd” dose. Close to full protection after a few days is not quite correct, otherwise you would not need a second dose. There is “some” protection a couple of WEEKS after the first dose, but every immune system is different. And that’s the key. Every immune system is different, so you have no way to be sure, unless you wait until 2 weeks after second dose (which by all anecdotal evidence will probably be the one that will kick your ass the next day). You’ve come this far, why not see it through until the recommended period? Also keep in mind the people around you who aren’t vaccinated, so you are doing the right thing by wearing a mask in public.

  8. Not a good look Gary. Playing doctor might be fun, but it’s also downright dangerous.

  9. Standing in line for 7 hours with thousands of strangers from all over the world to clear immigration (like at Heathrow recently) will certainly challenge the efficacy of whatever vaccine you have received…

  10. Well….Of course I will disagree with everything Gary says about the gene therapy injection. It’s not a vaccine as it doesn’t fit any of the parameters of a vaccine. It’s purely labeled experimental to get through all the red tape. If you think this shot(s) will give you full protection from getting Covid you have been duped by the narrative. At best you will be lucky to survive should you come into contact with any mutated SARS-CoV-2. Chances are you will suffer from an autoimmune attack.

    Good luck to all of you!

    Some documentation…

  11. @Ron – your issue is my saying the CDC is wrong, even though I have reasons and you have no disagreement with those reasons? Strange.

  12. My wife and I have been traveling domestically and internationally for several months. We take the required and reasonable precautions and certainly are not congregating in crowds at the destinations. No problems whatsoever (we’re both 70, just had our first shots). Obviously two people are not much of a sample, and as others have said everyone is different. But we do agree with our family physician who said, “Use sense but don’t put your lives on hold.” Since too many people aren’t very sensible it is understandable that the CDC will err on the side of caution. Despite our kids being worried we listened, then did what seemed reasonable. Others may or may not agree.

  13. The CDC and that turd Fauci are full of shit. I’m fully vaxxed and will continue to go about my life as if nothing happened. Its just a rouse to force government dependency. I’ll play the mask game a little longer but as far as the rest of it goes, they can kiss my ass.

  14. Also,
    Sitting 4 inches next to a total stranger on a packed flight for 3 hours is just fine…..F/As get out of the henhouse (galley) to serve a soda or God forbid, a beer…..Grandma dies. Have you had enough of the foolishness yet?

  15. THE CDC is a government agency and all government agencies are very risk-adverse. That’s the way you want government agencies to be. Individuals need to make personal travel plans based on the best and widest information available and not consider a single source as the “final word.”

  16. I skimmed this article so I can’t comment on whether there’s any merit to it (tbf you very well could be right on the money). But Ron has the right idea here. When it comes down to it I won’t let a travel blogger with zero medical experience sway me on an issue outside their expertise. Whether you’re right or not is inconsequential. You’re not an authority on this so why would I waste the time?

    Now if you were giving out advice on how to be a travel blogger or how to craft the perfect clickbait title then that’d be a different story. I’d be taking notes and clinging on to every word.

  17. Gary, I appreciate every one of your posts about covid and the pandemic. It’s refreshing and encouraging to me to be reminded that people can have an educated, reasoned understanding of the situation without a medical degree. This garbage some love to repeat that there is no credibility if you’re not an epidemiologist or some other doctor, scientist, or expert- well that’s just bananas. That attitude of “stay in your lane” is used to keep people quiet when instead it’s perfectly reasonable for educated, informed people to question, discuss, and inquire.

    Besides, many people have no problem accusing so many other parts of goverment of being wrong or dysfunctional- so why should the CDC be any different? When they’re wrong, it’s the people’s job to call them on it.

  18. It will be about three months until more than half of us are fully vaccinated. I think that the pressure to end the COVID lifestyle (for those vaccinated) will just keep growing. People get the vaccine for two reasons: 1) In order not to die. and 2) To get a chance to live life again after a year of misery. The first is accomplished. Nothing is ever going to be 100% perfect, but these vaccines are incredibly close. I will travel.

  19. There is no honor or goodness in any institution anymore. Scientists and the medical community is completely corrupted. Again, more of a foolish focus on cases when 99.9999% of cases resolve like a common cold. Scientists now are politicians first. So are teachers. So are doctors. So are professors.

  20. @ Gary and @ Michael — Yes, I will wait like a good boy.

    @ Todd — Anything called “Informed Action…” is suspect.

    @ CHRIS — I agree, plus what is the point of living if you are to just sit at home forever? Life is too short for this nonsense to go on forever. I will probably wear a mask when I fly indefinitely, simply because it will reduce the transmission of things like the flu.

  21. Gary’s 100% right. And for those of you sputtering “but but CDC!” let’s just remember how badly they screwed things up earlier, from the mask thing to the no asymptomatic transmission thing. Ouch.

  22. “1) In order not to die. and 2) To get a chance to live life again after a year of misery.”

    Wow, the propaganda has worked exceedingly well on you.

  23. A lot of commenters seem to believe that one’s identity is the most important consideration in determining whether or not that person is correct. I disagree. If you cannot make a well-reasoned explanation for your position or recommendation, why should I blindly follow you based only on your identity? One’s position of authority (e.g. – CDC Director) is enough for me to listen to what he has to say about his area of expertise. But if his reasoning doesn’t make sense, I’m going to ask questions. And if he can’t answer my questions, I probably won’t believe him.

    If somebody disagrees with Gary about a travel topic, I think Gary is likely to respond with reason and logic. I don’t think he is likely to say that his credentials as a “Thought Leader in Travel” make his conclusions uncontestable.

  24. @Total – Prior to January 20, 2021, the CDC wan under the thumb of a lame-brain. He screwed this country.

  25. Thanks for being brave enough to speak with common sense instead of just spouting the government talking points of the day. Not many with a public platform are willing to do so. (A notable exception being TheGate with Brian Cohen who has been on the side of reasonableness all along.) The misguided idea that Science is constant and all-knowing is insane. The #science people are unwilling to look critically at much of anything. The CDC protocol has changed near weekly for over a year. Continuing to expect people to hide away while also expecting them to inject themselves with semi-researched vaccines is just another lame over-reaction to the virus. Carry on.

  26. @Chris – I wonder why you bothered to get the vaccine if you think it is a rouse? @Gary – 100% agree. My thoughts are they don’t want people who are not vaccinated yet to whine about the vaccinated people traveling. They don’t want to lift testing and quarantine for vaccinated people because those not yet vaccinated will whine about that. I am still waiting to be eligible in my state but once I can get vaccinated and wait the two weeks, I won’t care what they say about it. Telling vaccinated people that you can go see your grandkids and visit in small groups but nothing else is stupid. I don’t know what planet they live on but we have been in a holding pattern for a year. Once vaccinated it is time to fly!

  27. I mean it’s not as if your livelihood is based on travel so there is no inherent bias whatsoever.
    Up next I’ll Almond growers tell us Almond milk is good for you. 😉

  28. @CHRIS, you can go and travel all you want. CDC advises based on the best available scientific data. It’s not the CDC or Fauci’s job to phrase stuff the way you like so you feel better about government control. You do what you want with the information. You seem outraged about nothing. There is no government control of anything. You have always been free to go on about your life as if nothing happened. There are no padlocks or gates outside my driveway. I just checked.

  29. @Angela, viruses don’t care if you’re tired of the holding pattern. CDC advises. This is a new disease and there isn’t even enough real world data about how long immunity lasts, or how much it can spread from vaccinated to unvaccinated people. CDC gives you the best available information with the data we currently have and you make your own decisions. Nobody’s telling you not to do anything. They’re guidelines.

  30. Gary,
    Any studies on people who have recovered from Covid 19? How are they immune compared to those that are vaccinated? I heard that for people recovering from this disease immunity only lasts 90 days. I wonder why Cdc does not offer guidance for Covid 19 recovered persons.
    Does anyone fully know how long the protection of the vaccines last ?
    Any links to articles anyone can provide me for information about that is appreciated.

  31. @George – actually my livelihood doesn’t depend on travel, I have a nice six figure office job that doesn’t start with a one.

  32. Amusing that so many think the CDC has the best interest of the American people in mind.

  33. I’m 66 yo, over weight and have high blood pressure. In 2020, I flew over 50,000 air miles. I took normal precautions and wore a mask when required. I’m on track for 50,000 air miles again this year, but am now fully vaccinated. Both my wife and I are strong believers that you have to live your life and not let the politicians and fear mongering media run our lives.

  34. It’s almost like vaccines are doing what they were intended to. CDC has some of the dumbest messaging possible.

  35. Who cares what the CDC says? I certainly won’t stop traveling because they advise not to. I really feel bad for people who have been staying at home “waiting” for the CDC the,king them it’s safe to see people. Those people will one day look back realize how stupid they were.
    The “control” of telling what to do is pretty much over. The only thing left is to make sure every blue state governor has no political future whatsoever. Newsom is practically out. And Cumo won’t survive. I couldn’t be happier. Their “leadership” has been a death sentence for many.

  36. Last night, a show that I was watching on Fox News made it sound like the initial recommendations, that were to be released on March 4, allowed for travel, but that the White House changed this.

    I could not tell how this was confirmed and one has to look into whether there was an agenda for the news show, but I found this to be interesting.

    I am just thankful that the CDC recommendations are just that–recommendations–and that they are not binding.

    Some of the readers may wish to follow the recommendations, including listening to them over Gary. That is their choice completely. However, I am appreciative that others have the choice to ignore the recommendations and listen to Gary’s advice instead.

  37. The CDC travel advice is correct. The vast majority of the vaccinated in America (thus far) are higher risk (elderly, healthcare worker, other comorbodity) people. It’s prudent to discourage travel for ***just a few more months*** until more “everyday people” have been vaccinated. To your point, even 30-40% of all American adults vaccinated would greatly change the travel risk profile, so let’s stay patient so we can once again have and sustain nice things.

  38. I agree with you 100%. It is very confusing that the CDC does not require vaccinated people to quarantine after being in direct contact with infected individuals but are against them traveling? The studies in Israel show that the vaccines do work and that they also help prevent transmission. I received my second Pfizer vaccine a week ago and will be traveling again as soon as I can!

  39. @Todd Well sure I’m going to make my decisions based on what two anti-vax websites say.
    After all after being wrong so much they’re due.

  40. The CDC can kiss my traveling derriere.

    Traveled internationally several times in 2020 without vaccination. Am going to do the same in 2021 with the vaccination.

    Almost 70, comorbidities but not afraid to live life.

  41. If you were just going back an forth in planes, then I would agree with you, but when you factor in high exposure opportunities like airports, busy streets, then it gets a little more challenging. For many travel isn’t just going to a resort and hanging out for a week. When I travel, I want to explore every inch of a city I am going to. I have my vaccines and would now be comfortable doing that on my own, and in fact I have a trip booked to SE Asia for a bicycle tour in the fall. More than the no travel warnings, what is slowing me up are early decisions countries are making to only allow quarantine exemptions for 3 months after the vaccine. I got mine in early February. I also had lots of trips planned with the grandkids, and while I may be quarantine exempt, they aren’t, so that also puts a crimp into any travel plans.

  42. @Gary, I mean it in an affectionate way when I say that you are utterly recalcitrant.

    Australia, New Zealand and likeminded countries have eradicated deaths by Coronavirus. And Australia’s economy is booming as a result.

    That means that any Covid death is preventable, and is as egregious as being killed by a serial killer.

    Yes vaccination protects the person travelling. But it doesn’t protect unvaccinated people enough from being infected by him. And if a selfish vaccinated person travels at the point at which he is fully vaccinated but others are not then he is effectively exposing everyone to spread of new variants.

    A pandemic is just like a war. Now, I can jokingly tease my American friends that you only bothered to show up for the last quarter of the First World War and the second half of the Second World War. But you need to see this pandemic through until we are all out of it.

    If you lose your discipline now you will end up with new variants killing hundreds of thousands more Americans.

    And I haven’t even talked about how some vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna) are more equal than others (AstraZeneca, J&J). What are you going to do about people vaccinated with the less effective vaccines, who really are at very high risk of spreading new variants?

  43. @Gary – I will play the Devil’s Advocate here for a second. I would guess the CDC’s argument would rest on the “vaccinated people can travel, but shouldn’t engage in COVID-risky behavior” as being far too nuanced for a broad audience.

    You can argue the point, but it’s a fair one. I also think you knew that…

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