September 30, 2022

Throughout the pandemic, travelers have relied on travel health notices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that assess the risk of traveling to individual countries. Today, the agency made a sweeping change to its world map.

For the past 17 months, the CDC used a four-level system for Covid-19 based on incidence rates — the number of new daily cases per 100,000 population. For a destination to be designated at the dreaded Level-4 risk, whose “very high risk” comes with a “Do Not Travel” advisory, more than 500 new daily cases per 100,000 people were recorded within the previous 28 days.

The criteria for Levels 3, 2 and 1 were also based on incidence rates, with a sliding scale from “high risk” at Level 3 to “moderate risk” at Level 2 to “low risk” at Level 1. For each of these risk levels, the CDC recommended: “Make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel” and “Unvaccinated travelers should avoid nonessential travel.”

Last week, 89 countries remained at Level 4, including virtually the entire continent of Europe. But today, the CDC map looks significantly different, with no countries at Level 4, which now means “Special Circumstances/Do Not Travel.”

There are 122 countries at Level 3, which still signifies “high risk” for Covid-19. The U.S., Canada and Mexico are all at this level, as is all of Europe.

The CDC’s new system now “reserves Level 4 travel health notices for special circumstances, such as rapidly escalating case trajectory or extremely high case counts, emergence of a new variant of concern, or healthcare infrastructure collapse,” according to a CDC statement. Levels 3, 2, and 1 will continue to be primarily determined by 28-day incidence or case counts.

The agency says the change reflect the reduced risk for the 74.3% of Americans age 12 and over who are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. However, less than half of Americans eligible for a booster shot have received one.

As the world began to open back up to tourism, the CDC’s risk-assessment map had become less meaningful. Large travel agencies have been reporting brisk bookings for Europe, regardless of CDC warning level. Last week, seven European Level-4 destinations — Italy, France, Greece, the United Kingdom, Spain, Ireland and Switzerland — dominated the top 10 destinations for Virtuoso, whose 20,000 travel advisors make up the world’s largest luxury travel network. “The CDC advisories are having little impact,” said Misty Belles, vice president of global public relations for Virtuoso.

With three out of four Americans over age 12 now fully vaccinated, the CDC says that it no longer makes sense to base its “Do Not Travel” warning on the number of new daily cases.

“With this new configuration, travelers will have a more actionable alert for when they should not travel to a certain destination (Level 4), regardless of vaccination status, until we have a clearer understanding of the Covid-19 situation at that destination,” according to the CDC.

Last week, the Biden administration extended the federal mask mandate for air travel and public transportation through May 3. The order was set to expire today, but the CDC said the extension was necessary due to the rise of new Covid-19 cases and to assess hospitalizations and deaths, and healthcare system capacity.

In March, the CDC dropped the Covid-19 travel health notice for cruising. The agency continues to stress that cruisers should be “up to date” on their vaccinations, which means booster shots for those who are eligible. The CDC continues to recommend that people who have not received a booster shot should avoid cruising.

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