Just Because You Can Travel Internationally Now Doesn’t Mean You Should

After more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel restrictions are lifting—especially for fully vaccinated people. But global vaccination rates vary widely and areas that are tourist hotspots may be welcoming visitors in the absence of public health measures. In this weird limbo era of the pandemic, how can we be responsible international travelers? Is there even such a thing right now?

The U.S. has made incredible progress with its vaccine rollout, with more than 67% of adults having received a dose so far and 59% fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But this also puts us in a relatively unique—and uniquely privileged—position globally. For example, Reuters estimates that 20% of Mexico’s population is vaccinated. Thailand has distributed enough vaccines for 9% of its population. And in Japan, which will be home to the Tokyo Olympics this year, about 23% of the population is fully vaccinated. Some countries, such as Australia, don’t have a huge amount of fully vaccinated people (about 18% of the population) but have strict rules about who can enter the country and still require incoming travelers to quarantine for 14 days as a precaution.

Those who aren’t vaccinated should only travel if it’s a necessity, the CDC says. And in those circumstances, they should take other precautions to be as safe as possible, including testing before and after travel, wearing a mask while traveling, and isolating themselves for seven days upon arrival. (Keep in mind that some countries are only allowing fully vaccinated people to enter and, wherever you go, you’ll need to follow the local requirements for visitors which may be different from country to country.)

If you’re fully vaccinated, that’s great, and you’ll likely have a lot more options available to you! But if you’re going to take your fully vaccinated self on a trip to other areas of the world, particularly areas that haven’t had the same access to the vaccines that you’ve had, experts say it benefits everyone for you to really think through that decision and to still take whatever precautions you can.

You have a responsibility to learn about how the pandemic is affecting your potential destination.

When weighing whether or not to visit a particular area, you have a responsibility to learn about the state of the pandemic there, S. Matthew Liao, DPhil, director of the Center for Bioethics at NYU School of Global Public Health, tells SELF. “It’s great that we’re vaccinated, but we need to make sure we don’t make the situation worse elsewhere,” he says.

“The main things you want to look at are the rates of viral transmission, so the numbers of cases and hospitalizations in that area,” Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System, tells SELF. “Vaccination rates would inform you about how well the pandemic is controlled in that country and how protected the individuals are.” Taken together, those data points can give you a good idea about the kind of environment you’ll be traveling to and whether or not it’s a higher-risk or lower-risk place to be. Dr. Maragakis recommends taking a look at the CDC’s site for information about your destination before traveling.

Keep in mind that it’s not just about the number of infections, it’s about the implications of those infections as well. Are hospitals already overwhelmed in the country you’re visiting? And if you do get sick there with COVID-19 or something else, what kinds of resources will you be taking up? “You could really be straining their health care system,” Dr. Liao says.

Is your trip really essential right now?

“We know there are essential reasons that some people will need to travel irrespective of the risks,” Dr. Maragakis says. “But for less essential or non-essential travel, you really do need to think carefully about whether or not this is the time to undertake that travel, because of the risk to yourself and others, especially countries that have not yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated.”

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