What Travelers Should Know About the Delta Variant

Delta is now dominant in the U.S., but how will it affect upcoming travel plans?

Woman in a face mask exploring Italy
Ergin Yalcin / Getty Images

When the European Union agreed to loosen nonessential travel restrictions on June 18, many Americans started dusting off their passports and booking their first international trips since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Now, an emerging variant first discovered in India is raising concern among experts and causing many travelers to rethink their summer plans.

Both the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have upped Delta’s status to a “variant of concern,” citing evidence of increased transmissibility, higher severity, and reduced effectiveness of treatments. On June 22, the country’s leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci called the Delta variant the “greatest threat” to eliminating Covid in the US.

By July 3, the variant had spread to 104 countries and represented 51.7 percent of new Covid cases in the U.S., making it the most dominant variant in the nation. According to a government study, the Delta variant is also responsible for 90 percent of new Covid-19 cases in the UK. The variant has also evolved into a new mutation known as the Delta-plus reported in at least 11 countries, including the United States.

Should I Consider Canceling Travel Plans?

Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the New York Times that the chances of being exposed to the Delta variant in the U.S., Europe, or other parts of the world while traveling this summer are “pretty high.” If you’re unvaccinated or traveling with unvaccinated people, however, the risk of infection is substantially higher. “If you’re an unvaccinated person, that, I think, makes your travel prospects much riskier,” she added.

This is good news for vaccinated travelers, but those in destinations still struggling with vaccine access or lower rates are less protected. Back in May, the WHO director-general revealed that over 75 percent of all vaccines had been administered in just 10 nations.

The CDC provides information on the variants detected in different countries and travel recommendations for global destinations. Additionally, the New York Times is tracking vaccination data worldwide and suggests looking at your destination’s national health department website to get more specific data.

Which Countries or Regions Are Imposing Restrictions?

In mid-June, Portugal ordered its capital city of Lisbon into a mandatory weekend lockdown over Delta variant concerns, while England postponed its ease of restrictions by four weeks. That same week, Italy introduced mandatory COVID-19 testing and a five-day quarantine for travelers coming from Britain. Still, it lifted those for visitors from the United States, Canada, Japan, and other E.U. states holding a vaccination card or recent negative test. South Africa, reeling from a recent 25 percent surge in cases, also imposed a two-week ban on all gatherings, the sale of alcohol, and travel to or from areas with high infection rates.

What if I’m Vaccinated?

A recent Israeli government analysis showed that the Pfizer vaccine provided 64 percent protection against the Delta mutation and was 93 percent effective in preventing severe illness and hospitalizations. In the United States, a CDC study found that Pfizer and Moderna reduced the risk of infection by 91 percent. More recent studies show that the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine protects against the rapidly spreading viral variants, including Delta, with the immune response lasting for at least eight months.

Still, areas of the US with low vaccination rates are continuing to experience an uptick in cases. “If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Good Morning America on June 30. “Those masking policies are really intended to protect the unvaccinated. The vaccinated we believe still are safe.” According to the CDC, about 1,000 counties across the United States have less than 30 percent of the population vaccinated.

What About Traveling With Children?

Currently, children under 12 years old aren’t eligible for any FDA-approved vaccines. Pediatric infectious disease physician at Washington University School of Medicine, Andrew Janowski, told the Wall Street Journal that masking indoors will become more critical as the Delta variant gains steam and encourages outdoor-focused and domestic trips.

Traveling to areas with low vaccination rates runs the risk of pulling resources away from medical care for local residents. What’s more, if you do have a Covid-related emergency while abroad, it may be more difficult to receive care as health systems are overwhelmed or running overcapacity.

Especially for parents of children with underlying issues, cardiovascular or pulmonary problems, or who are otherwise immunocompromised, it’s important to talk to your doctor about weighing the risks of traveling. If you do choose to travel, ensure that you have your child’s medical records and a list of providers in the region.