What the State Dept. lifting blanket international travel advisory means for Americans
By NATALIE B. COMPTON | The Washington Post | Published: August 7, 2020
Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See other free reports here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.
On Thursday, the State Department lifted its blanket Level 4 international travel advisory, prompting many Americans to wonder, "Does that mean I can travel abroad again?"
With this move, the State Department changed the way it shares information about international health and safety concerns during the pandemic, but the lift doesn't mean it's suddenly safe to travel abroad.
"The State Department didn't exactly say 'Go ahead and travel to wherever you want to go,'" said Gabor Kelen, the chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "You can go to their website and see [which country] they think is a hot spot, and dangerous, and so forth."
The coronavirus-prompted blanket worldwide advisory, issued on March 19, was the first of its kind since the creation of the department's tiered travel advisory system in January 2018. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the government closed the airspaces of the United States and Canada, and it resumed civilian air traffic two days later. During the Ebola outbreak from 2014 to 2016, the United States conducted enhanced entry screenings for travelers coming from high-risk countries.
And now, the department has reverted back to its previous protocol of offering country-specific safety recommendations.
According to a statement, the State Department said it "will also provide U.S. citizens more detailed information about the current status" of destinations around the world.
Some countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, continue to have Level 4 "do not travel" advisories in place because of the pandemic. Most European countries have Level 3 advisories. Only Macao and Taiwan have Level 1, the lowest possible level, advisories.
The department warns that Americans should continue to "exercise caution" when traveling during the pandemic, as coronavirus outbreaks are still unpredictable.
"All you need is one asymptomatic superspreader in some setting," said Kelen, who is also the director of the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response.
While some people may take the Department's latest advisory change as a sign to travel abroad again, Kelen is not overly concerned by the move.
"If anything, I applaud [the State Department] for bringing some realism to the way they interpret where you can and can't go," he said. "Even though travel is still risky ... they're not grading airplanes and airline companies. They're grading how well the various countries are handling covid and what's happening with the trends in those countries."
The lifted travel advisory doesn't change the fact that Americans are not allowed into many countries because of rising coronavirus cases in the United States.
"What's the point of lifting this travel ban from the US perspective when many countries we want to travel to won't let us in because we have the worst COVID19 epidemic in the world?" said Steffanie Strathdee, a professor at University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, in an email.
With at least 4,876,000 reported coronavirus cases in the United States, Strathdee said, American travelers have a moral responsibility not to transmit covid-19 to other countries, let alone to other states.
In July, Strathdee and more than 150 health professionals signed an open letter "to America's decision makers" advocating for a ban on non-essential interstate travel.
"Americans are more likely to become infected with SARSCoV2 from one another, right here within our borders, than they are abroad," Strathdee said. "We need to ban non-essential travel between states or we will continue to see the virus smolder and re-surge until we have a vaccine."
Whether Americans are traveling domestically or internationally, flying or driving, Kelen said, people should wear masks and practice good hand hygiene before and after touching any common surfaces.