WASHINGTON — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the most significant loosening of travel guidelines in months on Friday, saying that fully vaccinated people could travel, a development that appeared out of sync with White House messaging.
“CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves,” the new guidance said. The agency now says that fully vaccinated people do not have to quarantine or take a diagnostic test when traveling domestically. International travelers should take a coronavirus diagnostic test before boarding their return flights to the United States and then another such test within five days of landing in the U.S.
While appearing to condone travel, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky still urged even vaccinated Americans to remain at home as case numbers continue to rise, a message that could be confusing for people weighing visits to family or vacation spots.
Speaking from the White House earlier on Friday afternoon in celebration of both jobs gained and coronavirus vaccinations administered throughout the course of March, President Biden also offered a cautious message. “The progress we’ve worked so hard to achieve can be reversed,” he said, speaking of both economic and pandemic-related developments.
“Too many Americans are acting as if this fight is over,” Biden warned a few minutes later. “It is not.”
The White House did not respond to a Yahoo News inquiry regarding whether the president agreed with the new CDC guidance. Such seemingly contradictory messages have marked the response to the coronavirus at all levels of government. Much as every elected official has vowed to “listen to the science,” science and politics rarely walk hand in hand.
The new CDC guidance says people should still wear masks and take other precautions, such as washing hands and maintaining 6 feet of distance when possible.
That guidance updates a previous recommendation against all nonessential travel, which many Americans had not been heeding in recent weeks. The Transportation Security Administration recorded 1.56 million people passing through American airports on Thursday, the second-highest such number since last spring’s shutdowns drove millions of Americans indoors (the record, 1.57 million daily travelers, came on March 28).
That new guidance comes only days after Walensky said she was regularly stricken by a feeling of “impending doom” over a potential fourth wave of the pandemic.
There were 77,718 new cases of the coronavirus across the United States on April 1, a significant jump from the 56,679 that were added on March 1. That made the timing of the new guidance somewhat inauspicious from a public health perspective, as Walensky herself seemed to say during Friday’s briefing of the White House coronavirus task force. She pointed out that even though vaccinated people could travel, she could not recommend that they actually do so just yet, “due to the rising number of cases.”
“I want to acknowledge today that providing guidance in the midst of a changing pandemic, and its changing science, is complex,” Walensky went on to say. “On the one hand, we are telling you we are worried about rising cases, to wear a mask and to avoid travel.”
At the same time, she pointed out, her agency was giving people the license to travel, in a seeming countermand of her own insistent warnings, which some have criticized as overly dire.
Studies indicate that fully inoculated people are at an extremely low risk of becoming seriously sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. They are also highly unlikely to act as passive transmitters of the coronavirus to unvaccinated people. (Earlier this week, Walensky ruled out such transmission altogether, but the CDC later qualified her comments with a measure of uncertainty.)
“We must balance this guidance with the fact that most Americans are not yet fully vaccinated, which is likely contributing to our rising cases,” Walensky explained. “And that means we have to continue to reinforce messages about the critical importance of COVID-19 prevention measures.”
The new guidance could also prove an enticement to people who have been reluctant about coronavirus vaccination.
Only about 20 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated. The CDC does not recommend travel for people who have received only the first dose of a two-dose vaccine. Only the vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson requires a single dose.
Biden has promised Americans that they can have a nearly normal Independence Day holiday, provided vaccinations proceed apace and people continue to wear masks. But many people do not appear willing to wait until July, as Walensky appears to have recognized.
The CDC’s revision to its travel guidelines comes after a rowdy Florida spring break and a reported rise in hotel bookings. Those developments, and the arrival of warmer weather across the United States, have put both public health officials and elected leaders in a difficult position, forcing them to balance sound science with reality.
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