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Delta Variant: What to Know For Summer Travel

With vaccinations rising and mortality rates related to COVID-19 going down in Europe and other parts of the world, many people plan to travel this summer and beyond. But experts say the quickly circulating Delta variant is a new concern for travelers, particularly those who are unvaccinated. The European Union said on June 18 that the United States would be added to its “safe list” of countries. This decision should allow even unvaccinated visitors from the U.S. (who can provide proof of a negative coronavirus test) to enter its 27 member states for nonessential travel.

These countries, however, can impose their restrictions and requirements for entry. The E.U. decision comes the same week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elevated the Delta variant of the coronavirus to a “variant of concern” as it appears to spread more quickly and may affect people more severely than earlier forms of the virus. If you’re wondering how the variant will affect your travel plans, here is everything you need to know before booking a flight.

Delta Variant

Where is the Delta variant spreading?

So far, the variant, first identified in India, has spread to more than 80 countries as of June 16, according to the World Health Organization. In a news conference on June 10, Dr. Hans Kluge, W.H.O.’s regional director for Europe, said that the variant was “poised to take hold” in Europe. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said this would probably be the case in other countries. “If you’re out and about this summer, chances that you’re going to encounter the Delta variant, either in the U.S. or in Europe or other parts of the world, are pretty high,” she said.

The Delta variant currently makes up between six and 10 percent of cases in the United States, said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, adding that it will probably be the dominant strain in the United States by August. If you are fully vaccinated, particularly with a two-dose vaccine, “don’t worry about the Delta variant,” Dr. Jha said. Millions of Americans have received either Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, two-dose vaccines. Studies have shown their efficacy drops only slightly when encountering variants. “People who have been vaccinated still do quite well against this variant,” Dr. Jha said, “but it is one where you need a high degree of immunity to ward off, so you need both doses of your vaccine.”

Where can I find vaccination or infection rates for the places I want to travel?

The C.D.C. has a global variant map that shows the countries where different variants have been identified, though it does not list infection rates. It also lists the risk level by the government. Using government sources compiled by the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford, The New York Times has tracked global vaccinations, showing the percentage of people vaccinated in individual countries. You may also look online at the national health department websites for the country you plan to visit to get more specific data. In Britain, where the Delta variant is already the most widespread strain, the National Health Service publishes information on the spread of the variant and vaccination rates in the country.

Unequal access to the vaccine worldwide has meant that poorer countries are less adequately protected, with cases continuing to rise in parts of South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. According to the W.H.O., 75 percent of vaccine doses have gone to just ten nations. Dr. Jha said it’s essential to look at the country’s vaccination rates and the vaccines used there. Brazil, Turkey, and other countries rely on two primary vaccines manufactured by Chinese companies to inoculate their citizens. “We don’t have data that the Chinese vaccines, for instance, are quite as good in general, particularly around the Delta variant,” Dr. Jha said.

I’m fully vaccinated. What would it mean if I traveled to a place with low vaccination numbers?

A recent study by the C.D.C. shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines reduce the risk of infection from any virus by 91 percent for fully vaccinated people. The single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is about 66 percent effective at preventing disease. “Is it complete? No,” Dr. Nuzzo said. “But is it pretty darn good to the point that I would relax? Yes.” Vaccinated people can still be infected, but the cases of this happening are pretty low, and even if they get infected, they are unlikely to become ill.

She added that those with symptoms are more likely to spread the virus, so “if the vaccines did a good job at keeping you without symptoms, the likelihood that you’re going to spread it is quite low.” Suppose you want to improve your odds of not getting infected. She recommends following safety protocols like wearing a mask, social distancing, and avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated indoor spaces. If you are vaccinated, but your immune system is compromised because of a medical condition or certain medications you take, you should heed caution. You may not be fully protected, she said.

What if I’m unvaccinated?

“If you’re an unvaccinated person, that, I think, makes your travel prospects much riskier,” Dr. Nuzzo said. “I would not advise people traveling in an era of the increasing spread of these, not only more transmissible but possibly more severe, forms of the virus.” Dr. Jha adds that “the simple answer” for protecting yourself as a traveler is to get vaccinated. This, he said, makes the prospect of encountering the Delta virus much less risky. “But if you are unvaccinated or with unvaccinated people, then it does pose a substantial risk,” he said. He adds that travelers can use other safety measures to protect themselves, like wearing masks or social distancing, “but if you’re going to be vacationing this summer, that’s a less fun way to vacation.” Dr. Nuzzo suggests considering vaccination and safety measures as different layers of protection against the virus. “Each layer adds something,” she said. “Vaccination is the thickest layer of protection against all forms of the virus.”

What about my children?

Dr. Jha said if your kids are over 12, vaccinate them. But he suggests following mask-wearing and social distancing rules for children under 12 who cannot yet get vaccinated in the United States. He also said that getting vaccinated yourself can help protect your children. “The single biggest thing we can do to protect kids under 12 is to ensure everybody around them, all the adults, are vaccinated,” he said. “There’s outstanding evidence that kid infection numbers decrease when adults are vaccinated.” He said he plans to travel with his children, who are too young to be vaccinated, this summer. Dr. Nuzzo, who has two young unvaccinated children, said she will also. “We are in a phase where we have to gauge the risks and benefits of everything we do,” she said. “Everybody’s going to make those calculations differently.”

How is the variant affecting travel restrictions?

When the initial version of the coronavirus swept the globe last spring, much of the world hunkered down, restricting domestic movement, and many countries shut their borders to nonessential travel. Many nations are opening up, but concern remains about the virus, particularly the Delta variant. Some countries are making specific changes to their entry decisions because of the variant, while others are ordering emergency lockdowns. On June 18, Italy’s health minister said that the nation would require a mandatory five-day quarantine and testing for people from Britain, even if they are vaccinated, over concerns about the Delta variant.

It also extended the ban on arrivals from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. On the same day, Portugal ordered a weekend lockdown for the capital region of Lisbon to curb a surging number of virus cases. Roughly half of the reported cases stem from the Delta variant. Rules around testing and requirements to enter another country evolve and can change quickly from one day to the next. Make sure to check the requirements for your destination country before booking your flight, but also, in the days before you travel, ensure you follow the most updated rules.

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