The delta variant is quickly establishing itself as the dominant COVID-19 strain – but do travelers need to be concerned?
The highly transmissible variant accounts for nearly 58% of all U.S. infections, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has been detected in more than 100 countries. The World Health Organization expects it to become the most common strain in the coming months.
Some countries are beginning to tighten entry restrictions to get a handle on its spread, just as international travel had been starting to pick up steam.
“Undoubtedly, this is a virus that spreads really, really quickly,” Richard Webby, who helps lead St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s Infectious Diseases Department, told USA TODAY. “It is a stumbling block as far as us getting to the other end of this (pandemic).”
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What sort of travel restrictions are in place today?
Travel restrictions vary across countries.
Some are continuing to ease roadblocks to entry – Switzerland, Finland and Qatar all started allowing in more travelers in recent weeks – while others are starting to reimpose COVID-19 safety protocols that had been pushed aside ahead of the busy summer travel season.
Less than a month after reopening its borders to foreign travelers, Portugal now asks for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before checking in to a hotel or dining in an indoor restaurant at certain hours. Some areas in the country are also enforcing a nightly curfew.
Malta is requiring either proof of vaccination or EU Digital COVID Certificate to enter, and other countries – including Israel – have extended their travel ban in an attempt to keep the delta variant at bay.
“If I was a country that didn’t have a lot of this (delta variant) activity going on, it’s a virus that I would want to keep out of my community,” Webby said. “I would certainly be imposing travel restrictions from places where this virus is rampant. Unfortunately, at the moment, that’s a lot of places around the globe.”
Purvi Parikh, an immunologist who has worked as an investigator for some of the COVID-19 vaccine trials, believes the variant “will definitely impact international travel.”
“Various parts of the world may go back on lockdown depending on spread and vaccines and testing will be required,” she said via email. “(Some countries) may have to reinforce lockdown, travel bans, masking and quarantines, depending how bad it is.”
She added that the easing of restrictions will depend on countries’ vaccination efforts, and “many are behind.”
Some areas in the U.S. are starting to reimpose COVID-19 restrictions, too.
Starting Saturday, masks will be required indoors in Los Angeles County, regardless of vaccination status. And earlier this week, Chicago added Missouri and Arkansas back to its travel advisory, which advises unvaccinated visitors from the two states with rising COVID-19 cases to obtain a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine in order to enter the city.
How big of a concern is the delta variant for unvaccinated travelers?
The CDC cautions Americans to make sure they are fully vaccinated before traveling.
Parikh advises vaccines for travelers since the majority of the recent COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are among nonvaccinated people. She also suggests checking local guidance and infection rates in countries before booking that international flight.
“You may want to defer travel if an area is having a spike or surge,” she said. “Be adaptable, (since) much of this is dynamic and changing.”
Webby added that the spread of the delta variant may be inconsequential to many fully vaccinated travelers.
“If you’re vaccinated and fully immunized against this virus, then it poses a slight increased risk to you,” he said. But among the unvaccinated population, “this virus is going to cause more cases, it’s going to spread more easily and more rapidly. … If you’re not vaccinated, now is not a good time to travel.”
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How will the variant impact airlines?
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said on a Wednesday earnings call the company is mindful of the risks the new variants pose to the industry’s recovery, but domestic demand is growing and there are “clear signs” of international demand recovery heading into the fall.
“While we know international demand recovery will be very choppy and uneven, we’re seeing strong bookings to Europe when countries open their borders,” Bastian said. “We know our customers are largely vaccinated.”
Even so, Savanthi Syth, an analyst with financial services company Raymond James, said in a Monday note that the delta variant could delay the recovery of long-haul international flights.