The CDC Is Requiring You to Do This Starting Tuesday

This new policy goes into effect in just a couple of days.

As we enter the second year of the global pandemic, we've grown accustomed to certain changes in our daily lives. Dining in a restaurant might involve a tent and heat lamps, doctors appointments are conducted via telemedicine apps, and gone are the days of meandering your way through a mall. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has one more addition to the growing list of lifestyle changes: Staring Tuesday, you'll be required to provide evidence of a negative COVID test before flying back to the U.S. from any international destination.

"If you plan to travel internationally, you will need to get tested no more than 3 days before you travel by air into the United States (US) and show your negative result to the airline before you board your flight, or be prepared to show documentation of recovery," reads the new policy, which was posted to the CDC's website on Jan. 23.

As the new policy mandates, airlines must refuse to board anyone who fails to provide a negative COVID test result. This could very well disrupt travel plans for some, but should help to minimize potential exposure for those flying, as well as the broader public.

According to David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, the CDC's new policy has arrived not a moment too soon. As he explains, the "recently increased ability of COVID to pass from person to person is making air travel and all activities more risky for contracting this disease."

Longer flights already pose a risk that experts say is incalculable at this time. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), said in a recent interview that shorter flights may be safe due to HEPA filter use for "modest duration flights," but for long, international flights, "all bets are off."

"It is impossible to say how safe airline travel might be," agrees Cutler. "It is important to recognize that anyone around you could transmit COVID to you. And you could pass it on to others."

If you must fly, read on for some expert-approved tips on how to do it as safely as possible. And for the masks you shouldn't wear while flying or in any other situation, check out The CDC Warns Against Using These 6 Face Masks.

Skip the flight if you have symptoms.

Side view of woman wearing a face mask and coughing while standing at bus stop
ArtistGNDphotography / iStock

Just because you get a negative test doesn't necessarily mean you're in the clear. If you present with any of the typical COVID symptoms, you should seriously consider postponing your flight—even if your test has not confirmed your case.

According to the MD Anderson Center at the University of Texas, rapid antigen tests are less accurate than PCR tests at spotting the virus. And while the CDC doesn't require any particular test type, the three-day window will mean most travelers will use rapid tests, which can deliver results in as little as a half an hour, rather than the two to five days that it takes to get PCR test results.

"To a certain degree, you're sacrificing accuracy with speed. By their very nature, the antigen style tests aren't as sensitive because they require a larger amount of virus present to be positive," explains the MD Anderson website. "Someone with a positive test by this style of test should be treated as infected with COVID-19, but a negative test is less reliable and may need to be confirmed." And for more regular COVID updates, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Be vigilant before you board.

A young woman sitting in an airport while wearing a face mask, sitting next to socially distanced seats

According to Cutler, the risk of flying isn't limited to your flight time. "The risk of air travel also includes the risks of transport to the airport," along with the time spent navigating airport lines and crowds, he says.

"It is impossible to measure the risk you may be exposed to in these crowded, uncontrolled environments. That is why travel causes transmission of COVID and why one of the first steps in controlling the pandemic was limiting travel in those countries which effectively reduced the number of cases and deaths," Cutler explains. And for more on how COVID is spreading, see why You're More Likely to Get COVID From Someone Doing This Than From Coughing.

Take precautions while using the airport bathroom.


Cutler also suggests exercising additional caution if you need to use the restroom while in the airport or aboard your flight. These are high-traffic areas that often have questionable ventilation, and while most airports have stepped up their cleaning regimens amid the pandemic, bathrooms can still pose a heightened threat to travelers.

If you do use the bathroom facilities, be sure to wear your mask, limit what you touch by using clean paper towels to operate faucets and doors, and wash and sanitize your hands thoroughly afterward. And for one thing you don't have to do anymore, check out The One Thing You Can Stop Doing to Avoid COVID, CDC Says.

Wear a medical grade mask and face shield.

Children wearing masks and face shields on airplane

While on board your flight, Cutler explains that your main concern should be mitigating risk from those seated nearest to you. "The ventilation systems on commercial airliners contain HEPA air filters which effectively remove nearly any viral particles," Cutler explains. "Several small studies have confirmed that the majority of the risk while flying comes from the people immediately around you."

Luckily, you can slash that risk by coming prepared with the right gear, and by optimizing ventilation. "That risk can be minimized by wearing an N95 mask and face shield. You should also turn your overhead air blower on high to push as much clean air at you as possible," Cutler advises. And for more on mask safety, know that If You're Still Doing This, Your Mask Isn't Protecting You, Study Says.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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