Millions of Americans have been inoculated against COVID-19, receiving the vaccine that brings the promise of returning to life pre-2020. But what that means practically has been an evolving science since news of the shot first emerged, leaving many with questions.
The jab offers protection and comes with certain benefits, like getting together in small groups and avoiding some quarantine requirements, but experts told Travel + Leisure it doesn’t mean we will be putting away our masks anytime soon.
When it comes to travel, several countries and even states — including Iceland, Belize, and Vermont — have embraced the concept of vaccine passports, waiving quarantine and even testing requirements for fully vaccinated individuals (defined as two weeks after someone’s final shot). At the same time, many pandemic-era learned behaviors, like social distancing and mask-wearing, remain.
“It’s going to be a long and winding road to recovery,” Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, recently told T+L during a recent news conference, adding, “Travel is all about confidence, it’s what people believe. And [vaccines are] just one more step to getting people… to travel.”
We talked to Dr. Scott Weisenberg, the director of the travel medicine program at NYU Langone Health, about what vaccinated Americans can — and should — be doing, and what they should hold off on for now.
Can I travel after I’m vaccinated?
This is the million dollar question for frequent travelers who have been grounded for more than a year. But the answer is complicated and has much to do with personal risk tolerance.
“All of the vaccines do a great job of reducing the risk of dying from the disease, but you can still get sick — the likelihood of someone getting sick is still going to be based on their age and other risk factors,” Weisenberg said. “If you were to choose to travel, continuing to wear masks, social distancing… those are the things people can do to try to reduce the risk.”
Officially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Americans “delay” both domestic and international travel. If someone does travel, the CDC says they should get tested three to five days after their trip and self-quarantine for seven days, even if the test is negative.
Additionally, the agency requires all international travelers to test negative for COVID-19 within three days of boarding a flight to the U.S. Vaccinated travelers are not exempt from this order.
The good news is recent studies have shown the vaccine likely reduces transmission of the virus in addition to protecting the individual who received the shot. In February, a pair of studies in Israel found the Pfizer vaccine reduced infections (including asymptomatic cases) by 75% to 93.7%, Reuters reported.
“The more data we get showing exactly how much less likely vaccinated people are to get the virus…spread it to other people… the more reassuring that will be [to people] who don’t want to be involved in transmission chains,” Weisenberg said.
Do I still have to wear a mask if I’m vaccinated?
The short answer is yes — at least for now.
The CDC still recommends vaccinated individuals wear a mask in public and in high-risk situations, including if they attend a gathering with “unvaccinated people from more than one other household” and if they visit with an unvaccinated person who is at risk of severe illness.
However, the agency said small groups of vaccinated people can get together without masks.
Do I still need to social distance from others if I’m vaccinated?
Again, the short answer is yes, for now.
“Social distancing certainly reduces your risk,” Weisenberg said, but there is a silver lining: “The less virus there is in a community, the more you can get away with activities that otherwise would carry some — decreased — but some risk.”
Can I take a road trip with friends or family?
The CDC says fully-vaccinated Americans can get together indoors with other fully-vaccinated people — no masks required. Additionally, the agency says vaccinated people can get together for a maskless gathering indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household as long as no one is at increased risk for severe illness.
So the answer to this question is once again about personal risk tolerance.
“Four friends on a road trip who are all vaccinated and being moderately careful when they get to a destination would be a relatively safe endeavor. The risk of consequence would be a lot lower,” Weisenberg said. “But if some of them were not vaccinated, then it’s really going to depend on what the consequences are… the more people who are vaccinated, especially in a closed setting… the safer that environment will be.”
Do I still need to quarantine if I’m vaccinated?
Some states and countries have waived quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers, but some remain. New York, for example, no longer requires domestic travelers to quarantine upon arrival, but does require it for international travelers.
In February, CDC updated its guidance to say fully vaccinated Americans do not need to quarantine if they are exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19 and remain asymptomatic.
“If you travel, that’s the same idea,” Weisenberg said. “I think it’s best that people follow the public health guidance… but from a common sense standpoint, we know that vaccination is a major part of people getting back to normal and being able to travel. If that risk is reduced enough for other exposed situations… then it would make sense that travel at some point would be part of that same recommendation.”
Do I have to be worried about the new variants circulating?
The (frustrating) answer is we don’t know yet.
The CDC is “still learning how effective the vaccines are against variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. Early data show the vaccines may work against some variants but could be less effective against others.”
“The key factors now are how quickly people get vaccinated and how well these vaccines work against the new variants,” Weisenberg said, but added vaccines will “be the ticket for us to return to something of a normal life.”
“It’s not going to be a risk free situation, but there’s going to be things that people can do that [are] going to identify the risk and know how to modify it,” he said. “And vaccines are part of that.”