Slowing rates of COVID-19 infections and rising rates of vaccination in the West mean that restrictions related to the pandemic will gradually start to loosen in this part of the world. While there will be opportunities to travel again, the experience will be unlike what it was the last time many of us used our passports.
Global Guardian hosted a webinar, Return to Travel: Security and Safety Tips in the COVID-19 Era, on May 26 in which experts offered advice on how to travel safely, whether it is for business or leisure.
Key Developments in the West
Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been some important developments in recent weeks that suggest life in the West is gradually returning to normal. For example:
- CDC eases mask guidance: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has determined that people who are fully vaccinated can resume their pre-pandemic activities without wearing a mask.
- Half of all adults in the United States are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus: U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has set a goal of getting 70 percent of adults to get at least their first shot by the Fourth of July. And according to the CDC, 14 percent of kids in the United States between the ages of 12 and 15 have received their first shot.
- EU’s “digital green certificate”: European Union (EU) member states and the European Parliament this month reached a provisional deal for a “digital green certificate” that will allow restriction-free travel within the EU, including for U.S. tourists who have been fully vaccinated. The agreement has to be approved by the European Parliament during a plenary session set for June 7-10.
And the Rest?
In other parts of the world, the picture is dire. COVID-19 infections and deaths are soaring, especially in India and Brazil. In India, the official figures are believed to grossly understate the severity of the pandemic. According to a New York Times estimate, 1.6 million people have likely died as opposed to the government’s official count of 307,231 dead as of May 24.
Global Guardian CEO Dale Buckner is stunned by the fact that many Americans believe that the pandemic is nearing its end. “The problem is, you are not watching the rest of the world,” said Buckner. “I don’t think we are appreciating how badly off the rest of the world is — they don’t have the vaccines that we do…. You see spikes in Brazil and India and other places, they have enormous populations still dying every day, and the numbers are only going up.”
While acknowledging that there is “reason to see sunshine” in the developed world, Buckner said: “At the same time, understand that the Third World is being left behind in a way that we’re not appreciating… and you’re going to have to make calculated decisions.”
Buckner participated in the webinar along with Dr. Shelly Weisenfeld, Global Guardian’s medical director, and Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, a Frosch Company. Mike McGarrity, vice president of Global Risk Services at Global Guardian, moderated the discussion.
According to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, the United States leads the world in the number of cases and deaths related to COVID-19. It is followed by India, Brazil, France, Turkey, Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and Spain in the top 10 spots. “Much of these results are based upon good and bad government decisions related to testing, social distancing, quarantining, travel restrictions, and now vaccinations,” said McGarrity.
In the West, vaccination rates are up, as is travel demand. On the other hand, in the developing world, vaccinations are in short supply, variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are proving to be deadly and fast-spreading, and countries are in various degrees of lockdown.
McGarrity described the stark difference in the situation in the West and the developing world regarding the procurement and distribution of vaccines as a “tale of two worlds.”
COVID-19 vaccines are being produced in the United States, but also in other countries, including Russia, China, and India. “Not all vaccines are equal,” noted McGarrity. “Not all vaccines have the same efficacy rate and that is going to have an impact as we see other countries using different vaccines.”
Buckner cited the example of Chile, which has good vaccination rates, but still has a large number of people falling sick. “This all comes down to what vaccine they chose,” he explained, adding, “Around the world, you’re going to see problems with both the Russian vaccine and the Chinese vaccine, compared to what the U.S. and Europe have rolled out.”
Nevertheless, Weisenfeld said, all vaccines are successful when it comes to meeting the original objective of reducing hospitalizations and deaths. “Vaccines work. They will be our way out of the pandemic, not only for the U.S., but certainly for the globe,” she added.
Predicting that COVID-19 is here to stay, Weisenfeld said a number of options are being considered to make COVID-19 vaccinations part of a regular immunization schedule. The leading contender, she said, is a combined option with the influenza vaccine.
CDC’s Mask Guidance
While the CDC has lifted mask requirements for people who are fully vaccinated, everyone must continue to follow guidance on mask wearing at the workplace and local businesses. In the United States, people traveling by plane, bus, train, and other forms of public transportation are still required to wear a mask, including while transiting through airports and stations.
People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of a two-dose vaccine, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine.
Weisenfeld described CDC’s mask guidance as “sound.”
Buckner said people should adhere to this guidance, especially when they are traveling to countries where rates of vaccination are low, there is inadequate data on infections, and variants of the virus are present. “There are simply too many unknowns to think that just because you are vaccinated and you’re an American citizen that you’re impervious to [COVID-19] as you travel globally,” he said.
Future of Travel
The pandemic “devastated” travel and tourism globally, said Wilson-Buttigieg. Now, as the world starts to reopen, travel will not be what most of us remember it as pre-pandemic. There are ever-changing requirements for vaccinations, quarantines, and testing.
As per the CDC: “Fully vaccinated international travelers arriving in the United States are still required to get tested 3 days before travel by air into the United States (or show documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the past 3 months) and should still get tested 3-5 days after their trip.”
The EU’s “digital green certificate” will provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, has received a negative test result, or has recovered from COVID-19.
Rates of vaccination also vary from country to country. Once a traveler arrives at their destination, they may find daily life there to be restricted—museums and restaurants may not always be open.
Wilson-Buttigieg said people considering travel would benefit from the services of a travel adviser who can help them navigate this maze of uncertainty. The fact that Europe is welcoming vaccinated travelers “doesn’t mean you can go hop on a plane today,” she said. “It means you can start working with a professional.
“You need your Plan A and your Plan B and your Plan C,” said Wilson-Buttigieg. “Travel is possible, it is a little different, but you should always have someone on your side as an advocate.” She suggested the need for thoughtful conversations on why someone is traveling in the first place. “I don’t want to overcomplicate, but this is a complicated situation and people are spending their time—their one nonrenewable asset—and their money,” she said.
Wilson-Buttigieg has the following advice for corporate travelers:
- Reach out to your travel provider and discuss budgets.
- You can’t possibly consider going into someone else’s office on a business trip if you haven’t been back to your own office. First plan to get your own people back to the office.
- Discuss new policies, duty of care, and liabilities.
Global Guardian provides real-time updates on travel guidance from around the world to its clients. “If you are an HR director, chief security officer, COO, you have got to have that feed. You don’t want to be searching the U.S. State Department site trying to find the needle in the haystack,” said Buckner.
For those considering a cruise, Buckner said they need to consider what they would do if they fell sick on the ship, whether the countries they are traveling to will accept COVID-19 patients, and if they do, what is the quality of medical care they can provide.
The Way Ahead
Buckner had the following advice for HR directors, security managers, COOs, and CEOs:
- Take a hard look at how well your insurance platforms and vendors worked during the pandemic. Make changes now to what failed you.
- Travel tracking and alerts alone are not duty of care.
- HR directors should have the mindset that another global disruption will occur within the next six to eight months.
- Formulate your pandemic travel policies now that consider quarantine costs, access to quality medical care in a foreign country, and medical evacuation costs.
- Secure employees’ consent before putting them on the road.
- Be prepared for litigation in the event that an employee gets sick or, worse, dies.
A Choppy Reopening
Earlier this month, Germany banned most travel from the United Kingdom over fears of the spread of a variant of the coronavirus first found in India, known as B1.617. The World Health Organization has declared the strain a “variant of concern.”
“The big question is, do our vaccines hold” against variants, said Buckner. He predicted that countries will open and close as variants ebb and flow. “We all have to get used to that,” he said.
Citing Global Guardian’s experience, Buckner said: “What we’re seeing is that there are a lot more people traveling than you would expect.” He said while it will take at least two years for the airline industry to fully recover, corporate travel will bounce back by the fall of this year. “This all comes down to risk/reward,” he said.
Buckner said people living in countries where the pandemic is under control and rates of vaccination are rising should not become complacent. “We’re not out of the woods as a globe. This is going to go on for a very long time in the Third World because they have been left behind,” he said.
“On a positive note: the light at the end of the tunnel is opening for the West… but it is a long road and it is a bumpy road,” Buckner added.
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