Improved COVID-19 testing can keep us all safe as we travel
Americans now look forward to a summer of travel, reuniting with friends and family, and reopening the nation’s economy. Elsewhere, the pandemic rages on, and vaccines are scarce. How can we best manage this divergent reality?
Our government’s foremost goal must be to keep Americans safe as we return to life as normal. Vaccination rates, despite a recent dip, are encouraging, as are job numbers. But it is not time to let down our guard. To avoid confusion and missteps, now is the time to design the measures we need to keep America safe, even as the embers of the pandemic burn brightly in other countries.
The pandemic persists, but travel resumes
Unfortunately, both Americans planning to travel overseas and foreigners hoping to visit the U.S. now confront a bewildering confusion of scattershot requirements — pre-flight testing, arrival testing, vaccine certificates, and requirements for quarantine stretching for periods as long as two weeks. Washington, D.C. and European capitals struggle to put in place reciprocal arrangements for travel, despite progress both sides have made in controlling the pandemic.
What about travel from the United States to other countries? Most Americans have put off business travel and canceled overseas tourism, crippling the bottom line of major airlines and the service sector in holiday destinations. Updated travel advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and the State Department warn against most travel, except for the vaccinated. We can expect only a gradual uptick in travel over the coming months.
The questions for travelers from other countries to the United States are more complicated. Are they citizens of a country with a low current infection rate? Will they transit a country with a higher rate? Have they been vaccinated? Were they tested by authorities before boarding their flight? On arrival should they be put in official quarantine or advised to self-isolate? If Americans hope for foreign visitors to return to our country, we must put in place a system that is both predictable and reliable.
The stakes are huge. We need a system that controls for any risk of reintroduction of the COVID-19 virus. Looking at the economic consequences of continued confusion for travelers, it is worth recalling that, each year, up to a half million citizens from other countries enroll at our universities, while others crowd the gaming tables in Las Vegas, enjoy the theaters in New York, and tan on the beaches of Florida. The Americans who depend on tourist attractions for their jobs have been among the most negatively affected by the economic losses caused by the pandemic. Unlike bureaucrats writing government directives, they cannot work from home.
We can take several different approaches. One is to continue with the current system, putting less stringent requirements in place for visitors from countries with lower infection rates and more stringent requirements for visitors from countries with higher infection rates. Pre-departure testing in countries of origin by airlines can provide an added layer of safety, but the tests need to be reliable and accurate to ward against re-introduction of the virus into the US.
Vaccine passports are another option. As yet there is no agreed arrangement within the United States, let alone with other countries, regarding how to issue such “passports” as certification of vaccinations. But there is a larger problem: relying only on certificates of vaccination for all travelers would put the U.S. off limits to all but the inhabitants of those fortunate countries that have been able to conduct mass vaccination campaigns. In effect, for the next year that would close the U.S. to visitors from Africa, Latin America, and most of Asia.
Vaccine passports would favor developed countries
The one element that is indispensable for a reliable strategy is to have accurate, fast, lab-quality COVID-19 tests. We need to invest in the technologies that allow both accuracy and speed, and to deploy these tests at the border. Antigen testing, often used at points of departure, may be cheaper but are not as reliably accurate as PCR; we need fast PCR tests that offer both accuracy and speed. In addition to other measures being taken, these tests would provide a comprehensive strategy for opening the economy, while keeping Americans safe.
Crossing the border:I’m fully vaccinated, but am I ready to travel?
Americans can find it notoriously difficult to imagine how the rest of the world views us. Often in admiration, often in dismay. Today, there is much admiration for development of the vaccines, and our massive and voluntary vaccination campaign. There is appreciation for steps to share vaccine stocks and technology. We should act now to put in place a PCR testing regimen at all ports of entry to eliminate the suggestion that, once again, we will treat our friends from wealthier countries by one standard, and everyone else by another.
Cameron Hume, a member of the Foreign Service for 40 years, was U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Algeria, and South Africa.