Experts are predicting travel levels of pre-pandemic proportions this holiday season, but the ubiquitous risk of contracting coronavirus remains.
On Monday, the U.S. fully reopened its borders with Mexico and Canada and lifted restrictions on travel that covered most of Europe. Meanwhile, travel experts are predicting more than 53 million Americans will hit the road or take to the skies this year in what would be the highest single-year travel increase the country has seen since 2005.
As more people make travel plans and the holiday season approaches, NBC10 Boston asked three top Boston doctors Tuesday about travel requirements and tips during the weekly series, "COVID Q&A."
Is it safe to travel in this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Now that some of the most severe travel restrictions in U.S. history have been lifted, the stage is set for emotional reunions nearly two years in the making.
"I think now is the time to allow people to be with their loved ones," said Dr. Shira Doron of Tufts Medical Center. "It's been so long and families have been separated and so it is time to be thinking about how to be somewhat more permissive and allow people to be together again."
Doron identified two main risks to consider when it comes to travel and COVID-19: infection rates and variants of the virus.
"Like everything with COVID-19, there's the need to balance different harms and benefits against each other," Doron said.
Different regions vary in their infection rates and with it their risk levels, the experts said, which is why travel bans were implemented in the first place. But based on what we've learned, Doron said, variants will inevitably travel to different parts of the world "despite our best efforts."
"You really have to assess the risk," said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Traveling where? To visit whom and for how long and under what circumstances?"
Since the risk level will vary on a case-by-case basis, Kuritzkes emphasized the importance of taking precautions.
"If you're vaccinated, if you're careful while you're abroad, wearing masks the majority of the time and choosing carefully which venues you go to where you're not going to be masked for meals and the like, then I think, you know, it's reasonably safe," Kuritzkes said. "I don't think we can ever assure that anything is absolutely safe, but we've never been able to assure that travel is absolutely safe, even before COVID."
The second issue to be aware of is variants, since the virus constantly mutates.
"There could be a variant that is more transmissible -- more deadly, immune innovating -- in an area of the world, and we don't want to bring it to an area of the world where that where it does not yet exist," Doron said, but added, "There's probably no way to prevent that with strict travel restrictions."
What travel requirements are there?
"There there are a lot of challenges today to travel," said Boston Medical Center's Dr. Davidson Hamer. "One of them is the need to, in some cases, provide evidence of having been vaccinated."
From vaccines to testing requirements, there is a lot to juggle. Testing is often conducted before arrival in another country.
Travelers are usually required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure, Hamer noted, and then again before returning to the U.S.
Kuritzkes stressed that people should be aware of the timing to avoid complications.
"Read the guidelines carefully and do the math," Kuritzkes said. "Because, some places, it's 72 hours negative before departure, but many places and 72 hours before arriving. If you're taking an overnight flight to go somewhere internationally, you have to factor that in and you've got to test on on Tuesday morning and you're arriving Friday midday, you're out of luck because your 72 hours have expired. So you have to time the test appropriately."
"And then that leads into questions of which vaccines are acceptable," Hamer added.
Which vaccine is approved for international travel?
Most organizations are abiding by the World Health Organization's Emergency Use List of approved COVID-19 vaccines, Hamer said.
"All the vaccines that we have in the U.S. are on that list," he said.
There are many others, Hamer noted, including the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is likely one of the most widespread vaccines globally.
"If it's approved by the WHO another emergency use listing, that's an acceptable vaccine," Hamer said.
More COVID Questions and Answers
A panel of Boston-based doctors talking about everything related to the COVID-19 pandemic.