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Doctors & Advice, Family Health

Delta COVID Cases Are Rising: Can You Travel Safely Right Now?

BY CARRIE MACMILLAN August 17, 2021

Yale Medicine expert addresses COVID-19-related travel concerns.

Summer may be winding down, but COVID-19 cases are ticking up across the country. If you have travel plans in your near future or were thinking about taking a trip, you may be wondering if it’s safe to do so right now. 

On Aug. 6, the seven-day average of daily coronavirus cases in the U.S. increased 33.7% compared with the previous week. This surpassed even the peak seen last summer when there were no authorized vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

And with the highly contagious Delta variant now making up the majority of cases, many cities and states have brought back travel advisories and restrictions. For example, in some locations, people traveling from areas that are averaging above a certain case threshold may be required to quarantine for 10 days or test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arrival.  

We checked in with Albert Shaw, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases expert, to ask him our most pressing questions about travel right now. His answers are below. 

As the Delta variant continues to spread, should unvaccinated people cancel their travel plans? How about fully vaccinated individuals?

The increasing number of individuals with COVID-19 in the U.S.—and worldwide—due to the Delta variant, is a great concern. That’s because we know it is much more transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus—about as transmissible as the chicken pox virus—and can even be transmitted by fully vaccinated individuals. 

"How you will manage activities at your destination such as restaurants, shopping, etc., should also be considered... Outdoor activities are generally safer than being indoors," says Albert Shaw, MD, PhD.

I recommend that unvaccinated adults, or those with compromised immune systems who may not respond sufficiently to vaccination, strongly consider not traveling at this time. Fully vaccinated individuals should have substantial protection against COVID-19—including from Delta—particularly against serious disease resulting in hospitalization or death.  

But this protection is not absolute, as was seen recently in a COVID-19 outbreak in Provincetown, Mass., where fully vaccinated adults became ill with COVID-19. It’s reassuring that these “breakthrough” infections were generally mild. However, it is still unknown to what extent such mild infections in fully vaccinated individuals can result in prolonged symptoms after recovery—so-called “long COVID.” 

And as discussed, fully vaccinated individuals with a breakthrough infection can still transmit the virus to others. So fully vaccinated individuals should consider this risk, and also associated risks to those they live with, including those who are older or immuno-compromised, when deciding on travel plans. 

What should groups of people with mixed vaccination status consider when traveling?

There are many factors to weigh, especially to what extent you will be with large groups of people or crowds whose COVID-19 vaccination status is unknown. This can be applied to modes of travel. For example, there are the risks of air travel, not only on the plane, but also in crowded airports, as compared to lower risks of traveling by private car (although crowded rest stops should be considered). 

How you will manage activities at your destination such as restaurants, shopping, etc., should also be considered. Remember that outdoor activities are generally safer than being indoors.  

Furthermore, state and local governments may have restrictions, including testing, stay-at-home orders, or quarantine requirements. Particularly for international destinations, there may be COVID-19 testing required. You can check these details for your destination and where you are passing through at the CDC travel planner page. 

Should infection rates at the destination also be taken into consideration?

Yes, and you can find this information at the CDC County View Tracker. 

If you do travel, what are some general safety tips?

Mask-wearing, social distancing, and carrying and using hand sanitizer are particularly important for unvaccinated children, but should be considered for everyone, particularly if you will be in large groups or gatherings where the vaccination status of those around you is unknown. Avoid these situations as much as possible. The CDC recommendations include mask-wearing in public settings and when you are around people that do not live with you.

I would also suggest mask-wearing for everyone when interacting with older or immuno-compromised individuals. The CDC suggests COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated individuals prior to travel and three to five days after return, plus self-quarantining for seven days (or if not tested, quarantining for 10 days with self-monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms).

You can find more advice on travel safety from the CDC.

Additional reporting by Colleen Moriarty.