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Will You Need the COVID-19 Vaccine to Travel?

'Health passports' showing vaccination status may be required

Travel items with CommonPass app displayed


En español | The travel industry — not to mention travelers — are eager for a return to normal so people can once again fly, cruise and road-trip like they did before the pandemic. Now that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has begun, many are hoping it will be the key to helping us get moving again. Experts offer some answers to the big questions on the vaccines’ likely effect on travel, as well as what won't change, at least for many months (hint: the need for mask wearing and other precautions).

Will you need proof of COVID-19 vaccination to fly?

Possibly. Airlines are already pushing for a globally accepted rule that would require passengers to offer proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding flights. The goal is, in part, to allow travelers to avoid quarantine at their destination and to eliminate blanket travel bans between countries (and, consequently, help spur air travel's recovery). Now airlines are also beginning to test digital “health passports” that could reliably prove someone's negative test results and eventually their vaccination status.

The International Air Transport Association is developing a health app, the IATA Travel Pass, that will allow travelers to store verified test or vaccination results on their mobile devices. JetBlue is preparing to use a similar app, CommonPass, developed by the nonprofit Commons Project and the World Economic Forum, on flights to Aruba starting this month. Passengers will be able to take a COVID-19 test at home, send their test to a lab, and have their results uploaded to the CommonPass app. A QR code certifying that they're clear for entry will be scanned upon their arrival in Aruba. Eventually, it can and presumably will be used to upload vaccination status — serving as a kind of immunity passport. Other airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and United, are testing CommonPass as well.

COVID-19 vaccination may not be required to board domestic flights, however; Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian, told the Today show that may be something exclusive to international travel, “whether the airlines do it or international authorities do it.” Alaska Airlines has said it has no plans to require vaccinations, and believes that things like universal mask wearing and planes’ highly efficient HEPA filters are sufficient infection-prevention measures.

Might some countries require COVID-19 vaccination for entry?

Probably. Several African countries already require vaccinations for yellow fever, for instance, so there's precedent, says Jan L. Jones, a professor of hospitality and tourism at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “So I do think that some places will require it, specifically. And if they don't require it, they're going to require things like quarantine.”

Gavin Delany, founder and CEO of the online trip-planning service Travelstride, agrees, noting that it could be extremely confusing for travelers to suss out different requirements, “as some countries are likely to have tiers of entry rules and vaccination [rules] based on traveler age, perceived risk at the origin country and political element.”

Some countries may try to keep the unvaccinated out by coordinating with airlines. The chief of Australia's Qantas air, Alan Joyce, said in a TV interview in November, “We will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft. ... For international visitors coming out and people leaving the country, we think that's a necessity."

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Israel announced last month that it will be issuing a “green passport” to residents who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, allowing them to avoid certain restrictions and offering clearance to travel internationally without being tested for COVID-19 first. It did not indicate whether it would require people from other countries to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to visit Israel.

Asked whether a similar kind of vaccine passport might be issued in the U.S., Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Newsweek recently, “Anything is on the table. Anything is possible, of course."

There is even a chance that individual states could require visitors to be vaccinated for COVID-19, in the same way they require public school students to show proof of vaccinations for certain diseases, like polio and hepatitis A, says Anthony Harris, M.D., medical director at WorkCare, a consulting company focused on health in the workplace (including airlines and cruise ships). Harris considers it “likely, even though it's going to be a state-by-state process, that states will elect to mandate vaccinations and proving a record of vaccinations."

What about cruising?

Cruises have been on hold in the U.S. since the onboard outbreaks last spring, and the big lines, like Carnival and Holland America, don't plan on restarting until at least April. The CDC wants them to first prove they have effective safety protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the meantime, some cruise lines are considering whether they can require passengers to offer proof of vaccination, though none in the U.S. has made a decision yet. Meanwhile, the British tour company Saga has announced that travelers will need to have been vaccinated at least 14 days before cruising, once it begins operating again in May. “Everything's just fluid right now,” says Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of Cruise Planners, a travel agency network.

A big factor will be whether countries the cruise lines visit require travelers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination, Fee adds. “If they want to stop in certain ports of call, some of those countries might require it.”

"Lawyers are looking at it as we speak,” the CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings told Travel Weekly recently of a possible COVID-19 vaccine requirement for passengers. “It will certainly be a requirement for the crew."

Once you're vaccinated, can you travel just like you did pre-COVID-19?

No, no and no, experts say. At least not for a while. The U.S. is still in a crisis stage, as the numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths continue to rise. And while the current COVID-19 vaccines (from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) are extremely effective at preventing illness in the people who receive them, vaccinated people might still be able to transmit the coronavirus to others as asymptomatic carriers — the jury's still out on that at this early point in the rollout.

It's also unclear how long immunity lasts after the two-dose vaccination.

For those reasons, even vaccinated people will need to follow mask wearing and safe social distancing recommendations, at least “until we reach the herd immunity magic number, which is around 196 million individuals” in the U.S., says WorkCare's Harris.

Another reason we'll want everyone to keep wearing masks and take other precautions for the near future, adds Harris: “We don't want a subsegment of the population walking around without masks in a setting that requires masks to be worn. That's just such an awkward precedent for the remainder of individuals who don't have access to vaccinations at this point in time."

Older people — wisely, health experts say — are likely to remain especially cautious about travel during the pandemic, even after they are vaccinated. In a December Yahoo Finance-Harris Poll of 277 people ages 55 and up, only a handful said they'd travel out of state a month after they were vaccinated for COVID-19, and just 15 percent said they'd do so one to three months afterward. That's compared to 25 percent of people ages 18 to 34 who said they planned to travel during those first few months.

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