The Atlantic Daily: What the New CDC Travel Guidance Means—And Doesn’t

Art of a vaccine overlapped with a plane
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

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Today, the CDC updated its domestic travel guidance to say that fully vaccinated people can travel safely—but that doesn’t mean the agency is recommending it.  

Why is that? We called up Katherine, a staff writer who is covering the vaccine rollout, to find out.

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Could you briefly recap what happened today?

Katie: This is a change in guidance that people have really been waiting for. Basically, the CDC updated its guidance for people who are fully vaccinated. They officially can now travel within the U.S., without testing, and skip quarantine, and that is considered to be low risk. To be super clear here, the CDC is not saying please travel. It’s saying that it’s safer to do so if you’ve gotten your shots.

Caroline: A lot of people were confused! Why is that? If it’s low risk to travel, why should vaccinated people continue to stay put?

Katie: This is the tricky thing. The CDC is officially acknowledging that it is lower risk to do so. They’re saying, “Here is another thing that you can do with a little more assurance that you’re doing it more safely than people who are not vaccinated.” That’s not the same as, “Everyone hop on a plane right now to jump-start the economy.” I don’t think that’s the goal here.

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It’s tricky because as soon as the guidance was updated, we did see a lot of news reports that said, “The CDC has green-lit people to travel.” And there’s a lot of positive language. And I totally understand the impulse to report it that way. But they were very careful not to say you should or you should not.

Before, the blanket guidance was, “Please don't travel unless it’s absolutely essential,” and if you do, test and quarantine. Vaccinated people can skip those particular steps now, though they still have to wear masks and avoid crowds.

Caroline: Does having lots of fully vaccinated people travel risk making the pandemic worse?

Katie: Fully vaccinated people travel at low risk to themselves, as individuals. But consider the societal risk: More people traveling increases interactions between people—people who have to staff airports, manage itineraries, coordinate arrivals and departures. More travel changes our dynamic. So I wouldn’t say travel by itself makes the pandemic worse, but it changes the risk calculus for everyone.

Caroline: What’s your best advice to Americans who are itching to go somewhere right now?

Katie: My stance on this is to be prudent. It depends what your circumstances are and why you’re traveling. Certain types of travel are absolutely going to be more essential. And that’s not just for work: We sometimes need to travel for our mental health to spend time with people we haven’t seen in a year. Also, realize where you’re going. Are you going to a state where there’s a major outbreak right now?

We do want to make sure that people know that once they’re vaccinated, that affords them more flexibility. But I also think it’s really important to note that when we look around us, we can’t tell who’s vaccinated or not. And we take our social cues from other people.

We’ll see a lot of people around us traveling and partying and taking off their masks, and we can’t ask them, “Hey, are you doing this because you’re vaccinated? Or have you just given up? And what does that mean for me?” It’s good to behave responsibly right now, not just for you, but for everyone else around you.

Caroline: So it’s April. How are you feeling about the state of America's vaccination campaign overall? You’ve been covering this for a while.

Katie: I actually feel really good. I’m thrilled that we are vaccinating millions of people a day; we’ve exceeded expectations with this vaccine rollout. I do think we can’t just focus on, Oh, we’re vaccinating 3 million people a day. Who’s getting vaccinated? Who’s not getting vaccinated? We still do need to pay attention to equity and access and where these vaccines are actually going. That’s the problem with saying, “Vaccinated people can do this.” We are creating a kind of hierarchy of privilege here. And we want to make sure we’re not exacerbating some of the inequities that were already really messing things up during and before this pandemic.

For more on the vaccine rollout, explore Katie's recent coverage.


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Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox