Moderator: Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s London Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all of our participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we are very pleased to be joined by the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs Rena Bitter and the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Global Migration and Quarantine Dr. Marty Cetron to discuss the Biden administration’s recently updated policy on vaccine requirements for international air travel to the United States.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks by our speakers, and then we’ll turn to your questions. We’ll do our best to get to as many questions as possible in the time we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Assistant Secretary Bitter for opening remarks. Please go ahead.
Assistant Secretary Bitter: Thanks very much. Good morning and thanks to everybody for taking the time to be with us today. I’m Rena Bitter, the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, and I’m here to explain in a bit more detail the changes for international travelers that have gone into effect today. Thanks also to Dr. Cetron for joining us from the CDC to explain the policy in more detail and to answer questions about the science behind these changes.
First, I just want to say that this is an enormously positive change. The implementation of this new policy is a big step towards a return to more normal international travel. This new policy is consistent worldwide. It applies to all foreign national nonimmigrant travelers. It’s also stringent because it aims to protect everyone’s health and safety – U.S. citizens and residents as well as those who seek to visit us.
The goal of this policy is to make travel as safe as possible for everyone. As of today, foreign national nonimmigrant travelers age 18 and above arriving by air are required to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of vaccination status and testing prior to boarding an airplane to travel to the United States. This new global policy replaces the previous limitations that applied country by country, putting in place a consistent policy worldwide. This policy applies to all foreign national air travelers with some very limited exceptions.
The travel policy has changed but our commitment to combating the pandemic remains the same. This is my second point: We want everyone considering travel to the United States to be fully informed about these new requirements and to make their travel plans with these requirements in mind. So we are very grateful to all of you here and we ask you to help us get the word out as these requirements go into effect.
The message we want people who are thinking about traveling to the United States to hear is, first, be fully vaccinated before you travel; second, get the required pre-departure COVID-19 test before boarding your flight; third, comply with all public health measures, including masking and social distancing, while you are in the United States; and finally, make sure you understand the new requirements before making travel plans.
Exceptions to the vaccination requirement policy will be extremely limited. Airline personnel will administer the age-based and other categorical exceptions to the vaccine requirement, while the CDC will determine the very rare emergency and humanitarian exceptions to the policy.
I also want to draw your attention to the update to the existing testing requirement for boarding a plane to come to the United States. All passengers will continue to need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight to the United States. For those who are fully vaccinated, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, they must test negative within three days before boarding a flight. That is consistent with the current CDC testing requirements. For unvaccinated aircraft passengers, which would include U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and nonimmigrants who have been granted one of the very rare exceptions to the vaccination requirement, they will need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within one day of departure.
I’d like to also take a moment here to say that all of this information can be found on our travel.state.gov website and the CDC’s website at cdc.gov. Dr. Cetron and his colleagues at the CDC have put together a very useful quiz, which you can find on their website and which allows travelers to input their specific circumstances and identify the requirements that apply to them. I’d encourage everyone to take advantage of this very useful tool.
So thanks to all of you again for helping us to get the word out about the details of this new policy. Now I’d like to turn it over to Dr. Cetron so he can explain more about the specific requirements in the CDC orders and the public health principles behind it. Thank you very much.
Dr. Cetron: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Bitter, and thanks to all of you for joining. I couldn’t have said more accurately exactly what we’re all trying to accomplish here. This pivot will allow not only safer and more robust travel by moving from country-specific recommendations to a uniform standard, employing our best tools, which are proof of vaccination and testing as a way of keeping travel safe and all the recommendations, as were outlined; there are three particular orders that CDC has issued on October 25th which reinforce and provide specific details for – that cascade under the presidential proclamation.
These three orders operationalize the new international air travel system in accordance with the public health protocols that we’ve been discussing and are intended to be clear on what is expected both for the travelers and the obligations to the airlines. This will ensure the safety of international air travel during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These orders include operational details, and they put in place a stringent and consistent international air travel policy that is guided by sound science and public health principles.
The first order is the vaccination requirement for non-U.S. citizens who are nonimmigrants. And on November 8th – that is today – air travelers to the United States who are non-U.S. citizens and nonimmigrants will be required to be fully vaccinated, as the Assistant Secretary said, and to provide proof of their vaccination status prior to flying to the United States. Airlines have had policies to enable that information to be uploaded either electronically or to be verified with paper copies.
As a reminder, there are separate requirements in place for immigrants regarding their vaccination and medical screening. So this proclamation is really not intended to supersede or replace those, but be in parallel to those.
The airlines will verify the vaccination status in the same way they have been and will continue to do with the second requirement in the proclamation, which is the proof of a pre-departure negative test result. For the purposes of entry into the United States, vaccines accepted will include all the FDA-approved or authorized vaccines for COVID and the WHO emergency use listed vaccines. And I want folks to know that those lists evolve over time and additional vaccine candidates and vaccines have been added to those lists, so please be sure to check to make sure the vaccines that the flyers have had, the travelers have had are consistent with the latest list.
There will be very limited exceptions to the vaccination requirements for non-U.S. citizens who are nonimmigrants. CDC has determined a very narrow list of these exemptions, and that will include children under age 18 and persons coming from countries – citizens of countries with less than a 10 percent vaccination rate due to a lack of availability of the vaccines that are authorized.
The second order is an amendment to the global testing requirement for all air travelers regardless of citizenship. So noncitizens as well as American citizens and lawful permanent residents. Fully vaccinated air passengers, regardless of citizenship, will continue to be required to show a pre-departure negative test taken within three days of travel prior to boarding. For those vaccinated persons, they will be required to show proof of vaccination to qualify for this three-day testing window. For unvaccinated air passengers – and again, regardless of citizenship, so including unvaccinated U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents – the rules will now require a test within one day of departure to the United States. Children under two years old do not need to have a COVID – negative COVID test. There are also accommodations for people who have a documented recovery from COVID-19 with a medical letter that – of recovery within the past 90 days.
The third and final order that accompanies the presidential proclamation is for collection of contact information. All air passengers to the United States will also be required to provide basic contact information to airlines before boarding flights to the United States. This will allow airlines to better coordinate with the public health agencies to share information when needed to keep the public safe and informed and strengthen their ability to rapidly identify and contact people in the U.S. who may have been exposed to a communicable disease such as COVID-19 during their travel.
In addition to these orders, all travelers need to plan ahead before travel. I can’t emphasize this enough how important it is to plan in advance for these new requirements. Follow all airline and destination requirements, including the mask-wearing, the proof of vaccination, testing, or quarantine. U.S. travelers need to be prepared to show proof of a negative test before they’re able to travel to the United States and should make arrangements for testing in advance of travel. Vaccinated U.S. travelers will need to carry and provide proof of vaccination to the airlines in order to qualify for the three-day testing window, otherwise a one-day test will be required.
The best way for all of us to slow the spread of COVID-19 and emerge from this pandemic, as well as combat the emergence of new variants, is to act quickly to reduce the spread through vaccination combined with and layered with additional mitigation measures, including vaccination for everyone who is eligible, timely and effective case detection through testing, contact tracing, and public health follow-up of international travelers.
Thank you. I’ll now turn it back over to Assistant Secretary Bitter or to the moderator for questions.
Moderator: Great. Thank you for those remarks. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question will come from Parikshit Luthra of CNBC. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi. My question would be – and I’m representing CNBC TV18 India, and my question would be: Has the vaccination certificate by the Indian government been accepted? Will that be accepted for Indian nationals who are fully vaccinated looking to travel to the United States? Also, I believe Covaxin has been approved, so one question on the vaccination certificate: Is there acceptance for the Indian vaccination certificate? And secondly, what kind of surge in travel are you expecting to be onward from India and globally as well?
Dr. Cetron: Sure, let me – let me take the one with respect to the vaccines. You are correct that Covaxin has been added to the WHO EUL list, and we are – and understand that this is a majority of the vaccine that’s been in use in India, and so that’s a welcome addition for everyone. And as I indicated before, that’s a very recent addition. So folks need to check the approved vaccine list on a regular basis, both the U.S. FDA list and age groups as well as the WHO emergency use licensing list.
With regard to the vaccine certification, any of the vaccine certificates, the Indian vaccine certificate, if it meets the definition – the U.S. definition of fully vaccinated, it will be acceptable in that regard. So now that Covaxin is on that list, which we understand is one of the criteria for the vaccine certificate, that will be very helpful. If there are other vaccines that authorize that certificate eligibility that do not include an EUL or FDA-approved vaccine, that needs to be sort of looked into.
But with respect to the vaccines in that certificate, the verified proof of vaccination will meet these requirements. The certificate will clearly be suitable for travel.
With regard to the travel volume, we do expect that there’s been a sort of pent-up desire across the board for safe international travel, and we do think travel volumes will increase in general. It’s probably best for others to see how that specifically impacts particular origins and destinations of travel, but I do expect that a lot of folks who have been unable to visit with relatives or others for other reasons during the pandemic will welcome this opportunity to be fully vaccinated and engage in safe travel.
Moderator: Great. Our next question comes from Gonzalo Zegarra. Please go ahead.
Question: Hello, good morning. I have a question, because some countries have sort of mixing vaccines. What happens if a travel has a first dose of a [inaudible] and a second dose of a formula that it’s outside —
Dr. Cetron: Yeah, thank you for that question. And you’ll find the answer to this question also on the CDC website regarding mix and match. And in general, mix-and-match vaccinations for the purpose of defining fully vaccinated will be acceptable as long as the vaccines include the – an authorized vaccine. So mix and match is increasingly becoming more and more common, and it is also actively being investigated in terms of the robustness and duration of immunity. But the answers specifically to this question can be found on our website. The general principle is mix and matches are acceptable to meet the requirement.
Moderator: Okay. Our next question goes to Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you. It’s a follow-up to this mix and match, particularly in the case of Cuba where we know that they have two locally made vaccines that are not on the list of COVAX. But some Cubans have also been receiving the Chinese vaccine that’s approved, so they’ve gotten two doses of that and one of the Cuban vaccine. How are Cuban travelers or prospective travelers, how are they going to be treated?
Dr. Cetron: Yeah. That’s a great question and we realize that sometimes mix and match includes a non-authorized vaccine for the purpose of this. I think the best thing to do is to use the traveler tool, the quiz tool that we have where people can put in their individual circumstances and essentially get a red or green decision out of that in terms of the issue here. So you can imagine multiple combinations, and the best way we can deal with this at this point is to have folks go on the website, put in your specific circumstances and the timing of those vaccines, et cetera, and will have an answer in advance.
But in general, if there are no vaccines in the mix and match that are authorized, that is not going to meet the requirement of fully vaccinated. So mixing and matching with doses of vaccines, none of which are on the approved list by FDA or WHO, will be problematic. But other combinations, I’d just suggest that you go onto our website to get the answer.
Moderator: All right. Our next question goes to Dmitri Zlodorev of Sputnik.
Question: Good morning. Could you please provide update on Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which is not approved yet by the World Health Organization? Will you accept this vaccine? And what about those foreigners who are not vaccinated [inaudible] with COVID and can provide a proof of natural immunity? Thank you.
Dr. Cetron: Great questions. I will say that the decisions on authorizing Sputnik vaccine sit with the WHO committee, and to my knowledge, as you affirmed, that Sputnik vaccine did not yet receive WHO EUL and therefore would not meet the requirement, the vaccine requirements of the CDC vaccination order. And at this point in time we are continuing to evaluate data on natural immunity and proof of recovery without vaccination. Certainly there is situations in which people have had either breakthroughs on top of being fully vaccinated or have been initially vaccinated, and so we are looking at those combinations. At this point in time, natural immunity alone will not meet the requirements for fully vaccinated.
Back to you.
Moderator: All right. Our next question goes to Joseph Phil of NBN.
Question: Hello? Hello?
Moderator: Yes, we can hear you. You can go ahead.
Question: Yes. Yeah, we have two questions. One is for American citizens returning back. What is the requirement for them? And also, what is the requirement in terms of people that have had the disease already?
Dr. Cetron: Okay, I think I just answered about those that have recovered. So the requirement for —
Question: That was – that was for – no, that was for non-Americans. And Americans —
Dr. Cetron: Yeah, the requirements —
Question: They are very unclear. Yeah.
Dr. Cetron: Okay, got it. The requirement for American citizens and lawful permanent residents returning will be to show proof of negative test. The timing of that test will depend on fully vaccinated status. Those that are fully vaccinated, that meet the definition as we have it on our website and I just articulated, those will continue to be able to show a negative test within 72 hours of departure – three days – three days of departure. Those that are not fully vaccinated according to this requirement will need to show a negative COVID test within one day prior to departure. The negative test can be substituted by a medical letter showing that someone is within 90 days of recovery from acute infection provided they’re no longer infectious. Over.
Moderator: All right. Our next question goes to Jesus Esquivel of Proceso magazine. Please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. This is for Under Secretary Bitter in reference to the opening of the U.S.-Mexican border. There is a lot of confusion with regard to kids from five years to eleven that they haven’t been vaccinated. Are they going to be able to cross the U.S. border – not by air; I’m talking about walking or by car – in the U.S.-Mexican border?
Assistant Secretary Bitter: Hi, yes, that is a great question. So [inaudible] requirements are going to be – are going to take place over time with respect to the land borders. And I think CBP is going to have the answer to a lot of those questions. But initially, today, for borders reopening for vaccinated travelers who are traveling for nonessential – for essential travel, rather, that is the change today. The answer for children is that, as Dr. Cetron said, kids under 18 are going to have the vaccination status of their parents. So if their parents are vaccinated, the children will be considered vaccinated, and if their parents are unvaccinated, children under 18 will be considered unvaccinated.
Moderator: Okay. Our next question goes to Alex Raufoglu. Please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hi. Thank you so very much for this opportunity. And I have two theoretical questions. One is, where does the administration’s booster policy fit into this picture? I know this might have been addressed previously on a different occasion, but I keep hearing mixed questions about that and I wonder if you’d like to go ahead and to preview moving forward the current policy that you have on today because of the administration’s new booster policy.
My second question – I cover Azerbaijan, but all three South Caucasian countries are still among the list of Level 4 high-risk countries that were listed on the CDC website. I think the State Department also urged citizens not to travel to those countries. I’m wondering if given the new requirements if the administration is going to change its policy that its citizens are required to provide negative test results – why not urging them not traveling to those countries?
Thanks so much.
Dr. Cetron: Yeah, thank you. I’ll take both of those questions. So firstly, at this point in time, the booster considerations as well as the recent authorization of Pfizer vaccine for children five to eleven are not included in the requirements. And you’re right to raise those things. We should continue. We are – the CDC is continuing to gather scientific data on evidence on the robustness – that is, the strength – of the immune response both to natural infection and vaccine, as well as the durability or the duration in which that protection lasts. And as we – the booster recommendations are based on data in that regard. But at this point in time, the definitions for fully vaccinated do not include these updated changes. Stay tuned in the future as that definition may evolve. There are two places where you can look for that on the CDC website. There are technical instructions that we have, which are a level of technical detail that is even more granular than the vaccine order, and that’s a place where some of those changes may be posted in the future, as well as frequently asked questions.
And then secondly, you asked – just remind me, the second question was about the difference between a Level 4 country and the safe travel requirements, I believe. If that’s the question, I’d want to highlight that the pivot generally moves away from travel bans that had been previously in place under 212(f) for the 33 countries in which people coming from those countries were banned from entering into the United States if they’ve been in those countries in the prior 14 days. This travel pivot moves away from country-specific travel bans in that regard, but it does not actually change the concept of offering a risk assessment based on COVID incidence rates, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccination coverage, a number of factors that CDC looks at and analyzes in order to assess the level of risk of exposure in specific countries. So the Level 1 through 4 travel notices are tied to the level of risk because they’re important for people to understand that if folks are unvaccinated, this risk still persists.
And particularly as we’ve seen in the United States and in many other countries now, the pandemic is shifting to be principally impacting in terms of burden hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated. There are significant numbers of unvaccinated people worldwide and in the United States, and as that remains to be the case, CDC thinks it’s very important to highlight the state of risk in these graded categories. So although there are not bans, it is important to provide the information so travelers are fully informed in each direction.
I hope that clarifies the distinction. The bottom-line message is being fully vaccinated provides tremendous protection against hospitalization and death and the serious consequences of this pandemic. The best way to travel safely is to travel by being fully vaccinated. Over.
Assistant Secretary Bitter: Hi, this is Rena, and I also want to add into what Marty is saying just in general about the travel advice on the State Department website. COVID transmission is one of the many factors that we assess in determining the level of risk in traveling to a particular country, so I just want to highlight that that even if the risk of transmission is low for – with respect to COVID, there may be other reasons that a country would be at a Level 4 or a Level 3. So COVID is just one of many factors that we take into consideration. Thanks.
Moderator: All right. We have time for one more question. We’ll open the line for Irene Rodriguez Salas. Please go ahead.
Question: Good morning. Thank you for taking my question. My question is regarding people who have certain medical conditions that cannot take the vaccine. I mean people who cannot take the vaccine due to certain specific medical conditions. What happens to them? Do they have to bring that to their – go there with a certification of “I have this disease or this allergy that doesn’t allow me to get vaccinated”? How do they – does it work for them? Thank you.
Dr. Cetron: I’ll take that. You can find the answer to this question on the CDC website as well. But yes, there are certain exceptions, limited exceptions for medical conditions that – for example, anaphylaxis or severe allergy in response to a prior vaccine is an excepted – meets an exception for that requirement. And the details of how to present the documentation for proof of those exemptions can be found on the CDC website. Thanks.
Moderator: Thank you very much for that response. Unfortunately, that was the last question we had time for today. I’ll turn it over to our speakers if they have any closing words.
Dr. Cetron: I just would like to make one remark, and that is that clearly this pandemic is ongoing. It’s not over. The pandemic has shifted in terms of its impact, dramatically, on those that are unvaccinated. Manyfold higher risk of hospitalization, severe disease, and death among the unvaccinated. We strongly urge that those who continue to engage in international travel, wherever you go, to become fully vaccinated. It is the best and safest way to protect yourself, your loved ones, and others from the continued scourges of the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe the pivot today, its uniform application, is – will provide a safe way to resume international travel. But please follow the instructions, become fully vaccinated, make sure you present a negative test, and follow all of the public health mitigation measures that are recommended.
Thanks. Back to you, Assistant Secretary Bitter.
Assistant Secretary Bitter: Thank you so much, Dr. Cetron. And I just want to reiterate exactly what Dr. Cetron said. We’re grateful to all of you on this call for helping us get the word out to make sure that everyone who is thinking about traveling to the United States is prepared before they go; that they are fully vaccinated before they travel; that they get the required pre-departure COVID-19 test before boarding a flight; that they comply with all public health measures, including masking and social distancing, while in the United States; and that they make sure that they understand the new requirements before making travel plans. Again, this is a really positive development and it is to keep people – not only people in the United States safe from this disease, but also those who seek to visit us in the United States.
Thanks again for your time today.
Moderator: I’d like to thank Assistant Secretary Bitter and Dr. Cetron for joining us today and thank all the reporters on the line for your participation and for your questions. With that, we will end the call.
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