The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its international travel recommendations on Monday, relaxing previous COVID-19 risk assessments.
Previously, the CDC’s “Level 4” risk designation applied to destinations with “very high” levels of COVID-19 transmission. On Sunday, 89 countries and territories were listed in this category, with the CDC advising, “Avoid travel to these destinations. If you must travel to these destinations, make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel.”
The agency has since named its highest risk category “Level 4: Special Circumstances/Do Not Travel” and removed all countries from it. In a statement last week, the CDC indicated it would reserve this designation for “special circumstances, such as rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case counts, emergence of a new variant of concern, or healthcare infrastructure collapse.” The CDC’s next highest designation, “Level 3: COVID-19 High,” now includes 122 destinations and advises that travelers are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations, but does not advise the fully vaccinated to avoid travel wholesale.
Given that there are few places in the world where COVID-19 has not spread widely, it is becoming necessary for the individual traveler to determine his own risk tolerance. Safety does not simply depend on picking the country with no active COVID-19 cases, but rather on taking stock of your vaccination status, your preexisting conditions, and the medical infrastructure at your destination.
The CDC’s new advisory structure makes the point that not all areas with high COVID-19 transmission are irreconcilably dangerous to visit. As recently as Sunday, the CDC advised travelers to exercise the same level of COVID-related caution when visiting Norway and the Central African Republic; South Korea and Papua New Guinea; and Australia and Vietnam. It makes little sense to advise the same level of extreme medical caution across each of these nations, considering how vastly each country’s health capacities may differ. Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden are said to have some of the best health care in the world, but in terms of COVID contagion, the CDC considered them as risky to visit as Somalia, a country with only one surgeon for every 1 million people and a full COVID vaccination rate of just 8.5 percent.
Rather than offering a blanket “do not travel” designation for high-transmission countries, the CDC now says it will reserve its most aggressive advisory to warn against travel to destinations it feels pose uniquely high risks. The agency notes that the new guidance constitutes “a more actionable alert” that will “help the public understand when the highest level of concern is most urgent.” The advisory structure still hinges on questionable criteria—for instance, a focus on “extremely high case counts” rather than on hospitalizations and deaths—but it’s an overdue acknowledgment that we can’t always view COVID-19 transmission as catastrophic.
The relaxed travel recommendations are a welcome change, especially when taken with major airlines dropping mask mandates after a Florida judge vacated the CDC’s mask mandate for transportation yesterday. Certain travel-related policies—like the CDC’s requirement that travelers to the U.S. test negative before entering the country—are still in place, and the CDC could very well roll back the new advisory structure. But this shifting tide offers tentative hope that travel as we once knew it may be on the mend.