In early August, the CDC quietly updated its travel quarantine guidelines and now advises that following a trip of any kind, travelers should just follow many of the same precautions they apply during their day-to-day lives to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
According to the CDC, you no longer have to quarantine for 14 days after traveling or flying. Instead, the CDC states that “regardless of where you traveled or what you did during your trip” after your trip you should:
- Stay at least six feet (about two arms’ length) from other people who aren’t from your household—it’s important to do this everywhere, both indoors and outdoors.
- Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth when you’re outside your home.
- Wash your hands often and/or use hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent alcohol).
- Monitor your health and look for symptoms of COVID-19—take your temperature if you feel sick.
The agency notes that travelers may have been exposed to COVID-19 during their journey and not realize it. “You may feel well and not have any symptoms, but you can be contagious without symptoms and spread the virus to others,” the CDC states.
It reminds travelers that they pose a risk to their family, friends, and community for 14 days after they were exposed to the virus—but the CDC doesn’t go as far as advising a 14-day quarantine.
What the new CDC quarantine rules mean for travel
This CDC pivot “kind of changes the game a little bit,” says Saskia Popescu, senior infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University. “Without that requirement, I always encourage people to do a little bit of research about where they’re going, what the community transmission is like.”
The CDC does outline several types of travel and travel-related activities that can put people at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. They include:
- Being in an area that’s experiencing high levels of COVID-19 spread
- Attending a large social gathering
- Being in crowds, for example, in restaurants, airports, train stations, or theaters
- Traveling on a cruise ship
For those who participate in any of the above activities, the agency recommends that in addition to the blanket post-travel precautions listed above, that for 14 days after their trip, travelers stay home as much as possible (this is as close as the CDC gets to recommending a quarantine post-travel); avoid contact with those at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19; and consider getting tested for COVID-19.
It suggests those added precautions for all countries it deems to be “Level 3: COVID-19 Risk is High,” which as of August 20, was the majority of countries in the world. The CDC has a complete list of all countries and the associated risks and recommendations for travel.
Ultimately, if a quarantine isn’t required by a state or federal entity, the onus is on travelers to reduce the risks, says Popescu. “I’m not going to come home from a big trip and go out to a bunch of places.”
What is a quarantine and how are quarantines enforced?
Before we tackle some of the issues surrounding quarantine, let’s refresh our memories as to what exactly a quarantine entails—and how quarantines are enforced. A quarantine is intended to “separate and restrict the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick,” per the CDC.
That differs from isolation, which separates people who are known to be infected with a contagious illness from those who aren’t infected.
In the United States, states with quarantine requirements include Hawaii, Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts. The list and requirements have changed frequently during the course of the pandemic, so be sure to check the latest requirements—for instance, Florida had a quarantine requirement in place for travelers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Louisiana, and as of August 6, it no longer does.
In Hawaii, a quarantine is defined as remaining in your home or accommodation and not going to any public places such as pools, spas, gyms, restaurants, bars, shopping centers, or local attractions. The state says that food should be delivered to those in quarantine and that you shouldn’t have any visitors other than those you live with.
The enforcement of these domestic quarantine orders ranges from reports of Hawaii arresting nearly 200 visitors for quarantine violations last month to New Jersey’s order, which states that a “self-quarantine is voluntary, but compliance is expected” for travelers from states with significant COVID-19 spread.
Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom requires that anyone coming from countries and territories that aren’t on a list of exempted nations should quarantine for 14 days. They have to provide U.K. border control with their contact details, including their phone number and U.K. address where they’ll self-isolate for two weeks; travelers who fail to self-isolate can be fined up to £1,000 (or approximately US$1,270). If they don’t provide accurate contact details, they can be fined up to £3,200 (about US$4,070).
Despite reports about the chaos that changing quarantine rules in the U.K. have created (when countries are removed from the exempt list, for instance, with very little advance notice), British media report that little enforcement is actually taking place.
What should travelers do when quarantines aren’t required?
When quarantines are required, travelers should “absolutely” comply, says Dr. William Miller, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University.
But when they aren’t, that’s when the situation becomes a bit more nuanced.
“If they have been somewhere with a high rate of COVID-19, yes, they should. If they’ve been to a low incidence place and drove there, no,” says Miller. “If their only risk is the plane—and if they went to a low-risk place—I would say no, it isn’t necessary but I would suggest being highly vigilant.”
Infectious disease and medical experts echoed that sentiment of increased vigilance during and after travel, even if a quarantine isn’t required or recommended.
Those who might come into close contact with people who are at high risk for becoming severely ill from COVID-19, such as people with immunosuppression or chronic conditions, or senior citizens, “should self-quarantine and avoid coming into close contact with high-risk people for at least 14 days after their return,” advises Dr. Hanh Le, senior director of medical affairs at medical information site Healthline.
Le says that the way you travel should also factor into the decision to quarantine or not. She offered as an example of a potentially low-exposure scenario: traveling in your own car or a recreational vehicle (RV) with stops limited to gas stations and take-out restaurants.
“However, if your travel required exposure to a lot of fellow travelers in crowded areas, such as airports, airplanes, crowded train stations, buses, or mass transit, especially if the other travelers were not wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, then your risks are much higher,” says Le. Following those higher-risk encounters, she advises a self-quarantine.
Ahmad Varoqua, a developer and designer for the Human Agency, a digital solutions firm, did just that after he returned to California in early August from a trip to see relatives in New Jersey. He underwent a two-week self-quarantine in his house despite the fact that it isn’t required in California. He said he did it to protect his family.
“I decided to quarantine after my trip to New Jersey with more than a little encouragement from my wife, in order to protect her and my son,” says Varoqua. “Flying cross-country and going through two major airports felt intrinsically riskier than my weekly Costco run in terms of exposure. While it was the longest two weeks of my life being unable to hug my son, it was a small price to pay to ensure that he and my wife weren’t exposed.”
Why testing shouldn’t replace vigilance
The CDC says that for those who participate in higher-risk activities while traveling or go to high-risk destinations, one option is to get tested for coronavirus upon return to reduce the chance of spread. In fact, testing has become a method governments have used to help travelers bypass quarantine requirements in places such as Croatia, Greece, and Alaska.
For those who would consider geting tested for coronavirus before and/or following their travels to minimize the risk they pose to others, there are some things to consider. The first is that tests aren’t always widely or readily available, and those that are available don’t always have rapid results. Diagnostic tests for COVID-19 can also result in false negatives—meaning individuals can test negative even though they are infectious. A June study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that testing people for COVID-19 too early in the course of the infection is likely to result in a false negative test.
The other issue is that coronavirus has “a 14-day incubation period, so if you get tested on day 5 or 6, which we know is the average incubation period, and that’s negative, that doesn’t mean suddenly the rest of those 14 days are a free-for-all. Be mindful that you have a 14-day window, and try to make smart decisions during that time,” said Popescu.
Whether travelers decide to quarantine or get tested or not after they travel, Popescu said that ultimately the relative safety of travel—and reducing the risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus while traveling—really boils down to being a responsible traveler, both during and after your trip.
How should you do that? Wear a mask. Avoid crowds and large gatherings. Maintain a social distance from others. You know, everything we should all be doing whether we are on the road or not.
“Travel is important, mental health is important. Is it totally safe? No. Nothing is zero risk right now. Everything is varying levels of risk,” says Popescu. Lowering that risk “is so reliant on people being vigilant. I think travel is important, but I just really ask that people be mindful that they do it safely.”
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