MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us today for this briefing to discuss the current state of travel during COVID-19, in particular the implementation of the CDC’s rule regarding predeparture testing for travelers to the United States.
To help explain what people considering overseas travel should expect in the coming months we have joining us today two speakers. We have Acting Assistant Secretary Ian Brownlee from our Bureau of Consular Affairs. We’re also joined by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine Dr. Marty Cetron. A reminder that the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call, but this call is on the record. It is on the record.
So with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Brownlee. Go ahead.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you very much, Ned. Good afternoon, everybody. The last time I spoke with many of you was last spring, when we here at the State Department were focused on bringing home tens of thousands of U.S. citizens stranded overseas following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. And now here we are in 2021 and the pandemic has entered a new phase, as vaccines begin to be rolled out around the world.
That said, our main message to U.S. citizens considering travel abroad remains the same: Seriously reconsider going overseas right now. If you’re overseas right now, it’s going to be harder to come home for a while. So be informed and be prepared. The State Department is committed to upholding the administration’s efforts to combat the pandemic through prudent, science-driven measures. Many countries are updating their requirements for travel, given the evolving nature of the pandemic. And today, to keep us all safe, the United States joins them.
As part of our effort to fight the pandemic here at home, today, January 26th, the United States implemented a new requirement. All travelers to the United States must test negative for COVID-19 within 3 days of boarding their U.S.-bound flights or must present proof of having recovered from COVID-19. This rule applies to all travelers age 2 and over, including U.S. citizens. This means that U.S. citizens who choose to go abroad, whether it’s for a holiday or a genuine emergency, everyone needs to be prepared to be potentially seriously disrupted in their trips.
If you cannot easily access a COVID-19 test or if you test positive, you will end up overseas for much longer than you planned. If that happens, you will be responsible for covering your own lodging and medical costs during that time. Please keep in mind, we know it’s entirely possible to feel fine, to be asymptomatic, and still to test positive.
So to reiterate, if you were to test positive for COVID-19 while overseas, you would need to postpone your trip back to the United States, potentially for several weeks. All travelers should have a plan B: Where would you stay? How would you pay for that extended stay? What would happen at home if you couldn’t get back to work, couldn’t get back to take care of your children, or any of your other responsibilities? We encourage potential travelers to think through the answers to these important questions carefully before making any travel plans and to consider travel insurance that covers COVID-19 medical treatments and COVID-19 related travel disruptions.
As always, the Department of State is committed to helping U.S. citizens overseas who find themselves in dire situations, but that assistance is likely to be limited. Our goal is to help people avoid those dire straits in the first place.
So again, we urge folks to postpone their trips if they’re able and if they absolutely must travel to equip themselves with information from us – and you can go to travel.state.gov – or from our colleagues at the CDC at cdc.gov. And again, have your own personal plan B in case you test positive overseas or can’t get a test to come home.
I’m pleased to be joined today by one of those CDC colleagues, Dr. Marty Cetron, to help explain how all of this will affect international travelers going forward. Marty, over to you.
DR CETRON: Thank you very much, Ian. Appreciate the opportunity to join you on the call. I’ll keep my comments brief. I think it’s important to just give you a little bit of context on where we are with the pandemic.
In the United States today we passed the sobering milestone of 20 million – 25 million reported cases and over 400,000 deaths. The emergence of the new variants has also highlighted a new challenge in this race that we have with infection versus vaccination. These variants been proven to be very difficult. They – as RNA viruses will form mutations, there are three or four variants in particular that we’re watching very closely.
The B117 that first reported out of the UK, the 351 variant reported in South Africa initially, and P1 variant out of Brazil all offer very significant challenges. They all suggest that they are potentially more contagious than the current circulating predominant virus. They can quickly become the predominant virus that’s circulating, and several of them have represented challenges in looking at our – evading some of the natural immunity and challenges toward looking at our vaccine solutions.
So we take these variants very seriously, and we appreciate the importance that the variants will continue to emerge, especially while the viral – and the virus is surging in high levels both in the United States and around the world.
As these variants increase, the risks of international travel really are highlighted by the urgency that President Biden and this administration have taken to combat the virus and use all measures that we have at our disposal here. As a consequence, we reposted the original order that CDC issued on January 10th – January 12th that came into effect today, and that order is available online for you all to see.
Most importantly, the waiver that was initially contemplated to extend the deadline of implementation by a couple of weeks has been removed from this order, although we’ve specifically added a particular humanitarian emergency exemption to take into account.
So as Ian indicated, all travelers are going to be required to have a negative viral test or proof of recovery within the three days prior to their flight in order to be issued a boarding pass. All airlines and aircraft operators must confirm that negative result in order to issue the boarding pass, and if a passenger does not have documentation of a negative test or recovery from a medical professional or chooses not to take the test, they will not be able to board the flight back into the United States.
And this order does apply to all air passengers traveling into the U.S., including citizens and legal permanent residents of the United States. If a passenger doesn’t provide this documentation, the airline must deny boarding and the flight rescheduled at an appropriate time.
So as we said, travelers should be prepared for the possibility that you or traveling companions could test positive while overseas. And if you test positive, you may not be able to return home as planned, and you should clearly have a Plan B for this contingency.
U.S. citizens who choose to travel abroad must understand that they could be stuck in an extended way overseas without this Plan B, and the bottom-line message is this is really not a time for people to be engaging in discretionary travel and that all travel should be postponed until we get a better handle on getting this virus under control and accelerating our vaccination strategies.
With that, I’ll turn it back to the moderator and will be happy to take your questions.
OPERATOR: And once again, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1 then 0 command. Once again, if you have a question at this time, please press 1 and then 0. One moment, please, for our first question.
MR PRICE: Great. We’ll start with the line of Shaun Tandon, please.
QUESTION: Thanks to both of you for doing this. I had a question about the quarantine order that was issued by the President. What enforcement, if any, is applicable to this? If somebody doesn’t quarantine, are there repercussions? Will they be checked up on? Can you give us some more detail on that? Thanks.
DR CETRON: Thank you for the question. We’re not at this time issuing federal quarantine orders, but we do have and have had up on the CDC website guidance regarding the ways to increase the safety of international travel. It has two goals – this strategy has two goals. There’s the pre-departure testing which we’re talking about now on entry into the United States, and the goal of that test is to actually try to keep the hidden – or the asymptomatic infected persons from getting on the plane in the first place and keep the infections out of the travel corridor.
The second part of the strategy is a well-timed post-arrival test for those who may have acquired the virus and be incubating the virus after they return. And in this case, staying home for a period of time, seven days if you have a negative post-arrival test taken between day three and five, as is recommended on our website, allows the quarantine period to be shortened.
Most of this return recommendation really falls in the jurisdiction of state and local authorities, and each, the state and local authorities may have their own specific advice, but the CDC’s standard advice on this can be found on our website. So these are recommendations from CDC. There is the ability – and they may be followed by authorities that are being used in each of the different states or jurisdictions where people return. And it is important to consult within your travel plans to be sure you’re aware of what the requirements are for the destination that you’re returning to as well as the destinations in which you are going.
MR PRICE: Great. We’ll go to the line of David Shephardson with Reuters.
QUESTION: Thanks for having the call. Marty, I know it’s only been a few hours, but can you talk about sort of how the initial rollout is going, if any countries have seen any problems in terms of people obtaining tests to return to the U.S.?
And can I also ask: In the President’s executive order last week, there is reference to the State Department and other agencies holding discussions with Mexico and Canada in terms of adopting similar testing requirements for land travel. But obviously most of the – most travel between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico land borders is – has been suspended by the orders in place, but can you also talk about the prospects of these international air testing requirements being applied to land crossings as well?
DR CETRON: Why don’t I take the first one, and I’ll let my colleague from State speak to the second.
So the – as you said, David, the order just came into effect at 12:01 this morning, and we are holding daily morning operation calls with the airlines to do exactly what you say, get feedback on the early rollout and implementation. There has been notice of this testing requirement that dates back to the order being posted on the CDC website in January 12th, as well as recommendations around this that dated back to before Thanksgiving, in terms of the strategy and how to use testing in the travel environment to reduce the risk of spread of this virus.
So far, the things that have come up overnight have been things that are anticipated and are being worked out. We have various hotlines that are available in order to adjudicate things that may come up in the middle of the night, but I think they’re moving as can be expected. It was good that there was sufficient advance notice that allowed people to prepare for this eventuality, and we have been having regular conversations with the air carriers in order to facilitate what they have learned. I think there are over a hundred countries that also have testing requirements for exit or entry that are commensurate with this global effort to control the pandemic, and so there’s been a lot of good experience out there. This isn’t the first time that a testing requirement is being put in place around the world.
Ian, over to you.
MR BROWNLEE: Yes. Thank you very much, Marty. David, yeah, a really good question is what’s going to happen on the northern and southern borders. We in CA will be involved in that, because obviously there will be lots of U.S. citizens seeking to go one way or the other. It’s really – it’s others within the administration that have the lead on this, and this does not go into effect for approximately two more weeks. So I know the administration is carefully considering how to manage that border to achieve the public health needs while still permitting essential economic and humanitarian travel across the borders. So essentially, it’s watch this space. Over.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to Jennifer Hansler of CNN.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I was wondering if there has been any discussion at the State Department of reinstituting the global level 4 travel advisory, and if so, when that might roll out. And are there any plans to add additional countries to the travel restrictions? Thank you.
MR BROWNLEE: We are looking – Ian Brownlee here. We are looking closely at individual conditions around the world, and we are going – country-specific is the best way to do it. It provides the most useful information to the U.S. traveling public or those who are considering traveling overseas to be able to look at individual countries. If we find the conditions in a particular country merit a level 4, we will go there. Such might be the case if there were no tests available, and therefore people who went wouldn’t be able to get back again. Over.
MR PRICE: Alison Sider, Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much. I’m wondering if you could say anything about where the discussions about potential testing for domestic travel might stand, if that’s something that people are talking about or seems likely, and any other restrictions for either domestic or international travel, like a follow-up test once you’ve arrived back after international travel.
DR CETRON: Yeah, Jennifer. Thanks for the question. So as you indicated and as is specified in the President’s executive order, we also have to look at the possible planning in domestic travel. And so that – as the intent as it applies to the land border as well. These are conversations that are ongoing and looking at what the types and locations of testing might be. So this is another one of those “follow that space.” We’re actively looking at it. We realize that there’s been a dramatic evolution and increase in both testing platforms and testing capacity. I think this is a really important part of our toolkit to combat this pandemic.
At this point in time, we don’t have evidence that these variant strains have evaded our ability to detect them with the testing strategies out there. And the scientific community is following that space very closely as well, so that the tests are just one part of a very important, comprehensive, multilayered strategy designed to mitigate the risk, to combat the virus, along with the wearing of masks, the washing hands, keeping distance, avoiding the crowds wherever possible, closed indoor spaces and contact.
With regard to an assessment of what the testing capacity might look like and where those platforms could be deployed, I think those are ongoing conversations. But we’re encouraged by the increased both numbers of test platforms that are out there, the number of tests that are being done.
The U.S. order is permissive in specifying that a viral test, whether it’s one of the rapid antigen tests which would allow a very quick result – and some of these can be done in proximity to departure or arrival, or shortly after arrival. And there are some emerging FDA-approved – under Emergency Use Authorization tests that are easier to use. And there a lot of examples from the experience this fall with institutes of higher education using multiple testing sequences in order to not only bring the hidden virus more visible, but to be able to detect the entry of virus into communities earlier so that it can be controlled.
So all these evolutions in our toolkit are ongoing concurrently with the commitment to ramp up the vaccinations and really get ahead of this virus. Over.
MR PRICE: We have time for a couple final questions here. We’ll go to Christina Ruffini. Christina, are you there?
QUESTION: To follow up my colleague’s question, you said you’re not – you’re doing country by country, but isn’t this kind of a de facto Level 4? Because it sounds like you’re telling people to strongly reconsider travel and I just want to make sure I’ve got this right. It seems like if folks are stuck because they can’t get a test or they failed their test, is the State Department providing any support to those individuals? Or is the message “Hey, we warned you, you’re on your own?”
And my other question is: Do either of you have any information on vaccinations at the State Department home and abroad, what percentage of the workforce have or will receive the shot, and what the timeline is? Thank you both very much.
MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Christina. Ian here. No, this is not, I don’t believe, is a de facto 4. We’re able to give very specific information about individual countries including the capacity of those countries, within those countries, to offer tests that will be sufficient to meet the needs of this executive order. So it may be that somebody will find they have essential travel and they say, “Okay, well, I can go and I know I can get a test on the way back.” Many others will not. So we do not see this as a backdoor to a Level 4.
With regard to the percentage of the domestic and overseas workforce that has been vaccinated, I’m afraid we’re going to have to take that question. That’s really one that belongs to the medical office, MED, and we don’t have that data with us. Over.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to Rich Edson. Rich, you still there?
MR PRICE: Hey, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Just wanted to give you, if you wanted the opportunity, just – and this sort of dovetails on what Christina was asking – when you are an American citizen and you maybe are having trouble getting a test, or you’re trying to come home, does that become a CA issue? Will the State Department help facilitate these things, or are you stressing if you’re planning on travel, this is something you’re on your own?
MR BROWNLEE: Hey, Rich, thanks very much. Ian here. Thanks very much for reminding me I failed to answer all of Christina’s questions. Very kind of you.
No, we have facilities for U.S. citizens overseas. We can provide both information as to where they can get tests. If they need medical assistance, we can provide information on local medical providers, that sort of thing, and we can help them with regard to – we can put them in touch with family members back in the United States who might be able to provide financial support. If they’re, in fact, truly destitute overseas – U.S. citizens are truly destitute overseas, we have mechanisms for providing loans to those people.
So this is not a question of saying, “Good luck, you’re on your own.” But it is important to remember that the assistance we are able to – the financial assistance we are able to provide is in the form of a loan. It is not a grant. And it is also important to note that the U.S. Government cannot – does not and cannot provide medical services overseas to private U.S. citizens.
So for example, Medicare and Medicaid are not applicable overseas. Some U.S. insurance policies are, but not all. So that’s why it’s so terribly important for U.S. citizens who are preparing to travel overseas to find out whether their medical coverage goes with them. They should not assume it does. They need to verify that. Over.
MR PRICE: We’ll take a final question from Jacqueline Charles.
QUESTION: If you could provide us a little bit of details in terms of some of the problems that you have been hearing about that you anticipated. And also, the decision to eliminate the waivers, can you talk a little bit about that? Why was that decision made after initially announcing that you would provide two-week waivers to airlines servicing countries that had a capacity issue as far as testing?
DR CETRON: I can start off with that, Ian. So thanks for the question. I think that what we’re watching and what we’ve seen all along through the course of this pandemic is that this virus is a formidable foe, both in its ability to spread asymptomatically and pre-symptomatically in driving a hidden epidemic; the speed with which the virus can move through a population and grow exponentially, its reproductive rate; and clearly the evolution of the virus to forming mutations, which have the potential to become more contagious, potentially more serious, and at times partially or completely evade some of the emerging treatments and prevention strategies that we have.
We have to be prepared to be very flexible in response to this virus and adapt our strategies quickly. Partially what we saw with the – what was being learned by – about the emerging mutants, particularly the P1 mutant that emerged in Amazonas State in Manaus, where they had an initial large wave of infections with a lot of the population having recovered, only to find that this mutation caused a number of reinfections and a second round. When travelers with that mutation were identified in Japan on arrival, and those were studied with regard to the ability of their – of the recovery from – their natural immunity from the wild-type virus were tested against this new mutant, it failed that ability, and it was an explanation for the reinfection.
All this is to say we are – we’re really in a race between a very formidable virus and our human ability to control transmission and bring our best tools to the table in the form of vaccinations. So we have the variants versus the vaccines, and we have the infection in general and in and of itself versus our ability to fight this. And for all those reasons, it was determined that we needed to bring this testing strategy into implementation rapidly today and not allow for an additional two weeks. There really isn’t time to waste in taking this virus very seriously.
Additionally, when we looked at the surges of this virus that have happened, in particular in the months before Thanksgiving and through the holiday season – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s – we were just seeing surge upon surge in the virus at a time when more of the variants were proving themselves increasingly contagious. And it was a combination of all these factors which led to the urgency of removing the two-week additional extension for implementation and to move this into effect immediately at 12:01 midnight.
MR PRICE: Well, thanks very much. Thanks again to our speakers, Acting Assistant Secretary Brownlee and Dr. Cetron from CDC. Thanks to all of you for joining. And just a reminder this call was on the record, and the embargo is lifted.
MR BROWNLEE: If I may – if I may make one last point? I apologize.
MR PRICE: No, please.
MR BROWNLEE: A question I don’t believe – a question I don’t believe I heard asked. Maybe it was asked and I didn’t hear it; I apologize. The question would be: Will the U.S. embassies overseas be providing testing for folks – for U.S. citizens seeking to travel back to the United States? The answer to that question is no. We do not have the capacity to provide this sort of testing overseas.
Bear in mind, for example, in the Cancun area there are tens of thousands of U.S. citizens seeking to travel from the Cancun area back to the United States. We don’t have a health unit within 600 miles of Cancun. So if anybody’s thinking that might be a solution to this problem, it is not.
Thank you very much. Over.
MR PRICE: Thanks for that. Thank you, all. Have a good day.