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Making Sense Of The CDC's Seemingly Conflicting Travel Guidelines

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here's a question that is top of mind for many people. If you are a fully vaccinated, is it OK to travel? Well, last week the CDC issued new guidance saying that fully vaccinated people can travel safely without quarantining or testing before or after the travel. But then at a news conference, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said their recommendation against traveling has not changed. The CDC continues to advise against nonessential trips given the current rise in COVID cases. So what are travelers supposed to take from all of this? To help us figure that out, we've called on Dr. Monica Gandhi, who studies infectious diseases at the University of California San Francisco.

Welcome back.

MONICA GANDHI: Oh, thank you for having me.

CHANG: So what did you make of last Friday's announcement from the CDC?

GANDHI: You know, I can see sort of the whiplash aspect of saying one thing and then and then saying another in the same day. I think it's hard to be the CDC - I have just figured that out - because you're trying to message caution. But actually, it's really important for us right now to give people motivating messages about getting the vaccine, saying that you can travel, seeing that you can be together unmasked and undistanced. The reason that's important is we're going to get back to normal with these vaccines, and we want to increase vaccine uptake by telling you that you're locking the door to normalcy.

So that's what they were saying in the morning by saying you can travel. And then you're trying to be cautious and say, but, you know, only if you can, but maybe don't. And it reminded me of a mother, like, of someone like a teenager who just started driving and is doing a great job and knows how to drive. And you're like, yeah, of course you can go out with your friends. You have your license now. I mean, you may crash the car.

CHANG: (Laughter) Right.

GANDHI: But you can go with your friends. I think it's confusing. I think it's hard to message.

CHANG: Yeah. You want to be reassuring, and you kind of want to scare people at the same time a little bit.

GANDHI: Right.

CHANG: I mean, what this really seems to be about ultimately is, can travelers who are vaccinated still transmit COVID to other people? How strong is the evidence around that?

GANDHI: You know, the evidence is getting extremely strong that you cannot transmit COVID, or it would be very rare and difficult to do, after you've been vaccinated. And actually, what the CDC was messaging is data from their own study that was published on March 29 in the MMWR, which was of health care workers and first responders across the country. And to put it really plainly, these vaccines work incredibly well. Before vaccination, there were 161 infections in a thousand people. And after people were vaccinated, there was one in a thousand infections - very rare. And also, asymptomatic infection was reduced by 90%. So let me just tell you I put my 87- and 80-year-old father and mother on a plane and brought them over here two weeks after their vaccination.

CHANG: Wow. That's great. Well, should the guidance then instead be unvaccinated people should really avoid traveling? And even vaccinated people, go ahead and travel, but understand that traveling does carry some risk. Should that be the guidance from the CDC?

GANDHI: You know, the guidance - even that the way you said it is a little cautious. These vaccines are working so well. But there's nothing wrong with being a little cautious right now when we're in this weird transition zone. Some of us are vaccinated. Some of us are not. Cases are rising in some parts of the country. It's not in others. We are in a true transition zone, right? And that's why our messaging is so weird right now - because we're trying to say that, you know, 31.4% of Americans, go ahead and travel; you're great, and then tell everyone else to stay home. So it's very confusing.

CHANG: Yeah.

GANDHI: I would say that if you're vaccinated, feel very safe. Definitely wear masks and distance on the plane, and use that good ventilation in the plane because you want to be respectful of others. It's just pure social norm being respectful. And if you have to travel if you're unvaccinated, use your safety precautions. There is ventilation on the plane. Use your strong mask if you need to travel if you're unvaccinated.

CHANG: Dr. Monica Gandhi is a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

Thank you so much for clarifying some of this for us.

GANDHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.