In an email, CDC spokesman Scott Pauley told The Washington Post: “This updated guidance is based on risk of exposure during travel, asking travelers to think about what they did, where they were, and who they came into contact with to evaluate their risk of exposure to covid-19.”
The CDC’s updated travel guidance states that all returning travelers should social distance, wear a cloth face covering, wash their hands often and watch for symptoms. Notably, those are all basic measures the CDC has highlighted to Americans to follow since the beginning of the pandemic, regardless of whether traveling is involved.
Doctors say that quarantines can still be a good idea after traveling to a coronavirus-impacted area, and that quarantines are especially useful in the absence of testing. Plus, if you’re from a state that requires a two-week quarantine, you’ll likely still need to complete one.
“Broadly speaking, if someone travels to an area with an active outbreak, it’s reasonable upon return for them to be required to either get tested or to quarantine, a measure that many states now have in place,” Boston University epidemiologist Sandro Galea told The Washington Post. “We’re all trying to adapt to shifting realities and shifting facts all the time,” he says, but the advice to distance, frequently sanitize and wear a mask in public “are guidelines we should all be following all the time, regardless of whether we’ve traveled or not.”
The CDC’s travel guidance does still note that travel and being in crowds increases the chance of contracting the virus, and that infected people can be asymptomatic and spread the disease. But CDC quarantine guidelines also now narrowly define those who should isolate for two weeks as “people who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 — excluding people who have had COVID-19 within the past three months.”
Galea calls the new CDC travel guidance a “direct contradiction” of what many states are doing — requiring quarantines. “In general, the U.S. could have benefited from having specific guidelines at a federal level from the beginning of this pandemic,” he says.
Wondering if you should self-quarantine after travel even if you’re visiting a lower-risk destinations and your state doesn’t require it? Lawrence Mayer, an epidemiologist and visiting fellow at Harvard University, says quarantines can be useful in returning from a high-risk area if you aren’t able to acquire a test and will be around some higher-risk individuals.
“If arriving from a high-transmission area, I think testing and quarantining on return would be helpful,” Mayer says. “Without a test, a 14-day quarantine seems reasonable” to prevent the spread of the virus. Like Galea, Mayer notes that the updated travel guidelines simply restate the standard advice that the CDC has urged everyone in the United States to follow, regardless of travel, since the pandemic began.
States mandating two-week quarantines for arrivals in some cases include Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. The CDC’s bottom line that travel elevates the risk of contracting the coronavirus hasn’t changed, even as the quarantine-after-travel advice disappeared.
“Don’t travel if you are sick or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days. Don’t travel with someone who is sick,” the CDC’s travel guidance states. “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”