Amber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says that while testing can reduce risk, it doesn’t guarantee there is zero risk. For example, testing can reduce risk if you’re going somewhere where everyone was required to test negative before visiting.
However, you could test before your trip, pick up coronavirus along the way and get sick while you’re on vacation.
“Testing doesn’t prevent that,” D’Souza says. “It’s several days after you’re exposed that people first become infectious and first test positive.”
The case against testing (unless it’s a requirement)
At this point, the CDC travel website says that unless it’s required by the destination you’re visiting or for entry back into the United States, “you do NOT need to get tested or self-quarantine if you are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 3 months.”
From Gonsenhauser’s perspective, there is still a role for testing, “particularly on return to your communities,” he says. “We’re trying everything we can to limit spread within communities.”
But Gonsenhauser doesn’t think testing does much to change traveler behavior. He has seen examples of people testing positive, or knowing they have been exposed to coronavirus, who refuse to quarantine. If you test positive and don’t do anything about it, testing seems irrelevant.
“It’s hard to say what the impact of additional required testing would necessarily be in terms of limiting the risk of spread,” Gonsenhauser says.
We asked: Will travel insurance protect your trip as covid spreads?
Far more beneficial, Gonsenhauser says, is getting more of the population vaccinated, choosing travel destinations with lower transmission rates or potentially canceling travel plans. “And obviously masking and physically distancing wherever possible,” he says.
Tom Kenyon, Project HOPE’s chief health officer who spent 21 years at the CDC, is on a similar page as Gonsenhauser.
“If you’re fully vaccinated, testing really doesn’t add much other than to give more reassurance,” he says.
So who should get tested?
As Kenyon said, you could get a test “if you want to be really sure you’re not posing a risk to others and that you’re not one of these people that have a very rare breakthrough infection.”
His advice on testing is different for the unvaccinated.
“If you’re unvaccinated and you really think you have to travel, then you should get a viral test one to three days before you travel,” Kenyon says. “Then after you travel, get another viral test three to five days after you get back and then stay home. Nothing’s changed.”
Anyone traveling abroad should look into the requirements of their destination before choosing their test. Those traveling by air into the U.S. From an international destination (who are at least 2 years old) must get a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or rapid antigen test within three days of their flight. Airline staff should ask to see those results before you board.
For both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, the health experts agreed that if you’re experiencing symptoms, you should get tested whether you have plans to travel or not.
What 6 health experts say about traveling amid the delta variant How can you find a test?
Our options for testing have come a long way since 2020. There are now “self tests” you can use at home alone or with the help of a telemedicine provider. Testing is available at airports, pharmacies, fire stations and through libraries.
I’ve been tested at least a dozen times, trying methods from CVS, a doctor’s office, drive-throughs at hospitals, mail-in kits from Pixel by LabCorp and self-tests from BinaxNOW. A major takeaway from my experience: Don’t wait until the last minute to figure it out. Delivery times for test kits can fluctuate, and appointment slots for tests aren’t guaranteed.