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CDC lifts COVID-19 testing requirement to enter the US via air travel

The Biden administration announced it will end COVID-19 testing requirements for international travelers entering the US via air. Here’s what you need to know.

Effective midnight on Sunday, you no longer need a negative COVID-19 test result to enter the U.S. via air travel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that it has lifted its COVID-19 testing requirement for air travelers entering the U.S. from a foreign country. However, the agency still recommends passengers take a COVID test prior to flying (no more more than three days beforehand) and not travel if they’re sick.

The news was initially reported by CNN and confirmed by White House Assistant Press Secretary Kevin Munoz in a tweet on Friday.

"This step is possible because of the progress we’ve made in our fight against COVID-19. Right now, we have life-saving vaccines and widely available treatments — effective against prevalent variants — preventing serious illness and death," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Friday.

"The CDC continues to recommend COVID-19 testing prior to air travel of any kind and will not hesitate to reinstate a pre-departure testing requirement, if needed later. Ensuring the safety and well-being of Americans is a top priority."

The change went into effect for all U.S.-bound passengers at 12:01am ET on Sunday. The restriction had been in place since January 2021 and drawn criticism from the travel and airline industries, which have been hit hard by the pandemic. The new rule also comes at the start of summer in the U.S., one of the busiest travel seasons.  Travelers entering the U.S. on land had been exempt from the testing requirement.

The CDC will reevaluate its decision in 90 days — and after that on an ongoing basis — to determine if the requirement needs to be reinstated, a Biden administration official told CNBC. “If there is a need to reinstate a pre-departure testing requirement — including due to a new, concerning variant — CDC will not hesitate to act."

COVID-19 testing requirement in place since 2021

Since January 2021, the CDC has required all air passengers over the age of 2 to show proof of a negative COVID-19 viral test or documentation of recovery within the last 90 days before boarding a flight from a foreign country into the United States. The requirement applies to all passengers, regardless of citizenship or vaccination status, according to the CDC website

In December 2021, as the omicron variant spread rapidly around the world, the CDC amended its order to require a negative COVID-19 viral test result taken no more than one day before travel. Previously, the viral test could be taken within three days of departure.

Traveling without COVID testing requirement

If you’re traveling into the U.S. by air, land or sea from a foreign country, you will no longer need to show a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of recovery in the last 90 days. You should, however, still follow CDC guidelines around travel to and from the US. 

Per CDC guidance, you should avoid any travel if you have COVID-19 symptoms, recently tested positive, are waiting on test results, or had close contact with a person who has COVID-19 and are recommended to quarantine. Consult a medical professional if you have questions or concerns about your individual health. 

Most non-U.S. citizens entering the country will have to show proof of vaccination, a White House official told CNBC.

Is the U.S. ready to ditch the COVID testing requirement?

"I am personally concerned that right now we're seeing a lot of surges in certain parts of the world and certainly parts of the United States domestically, and without having clear negative COVID testing before entering that flight, that poses really a challenge to mitigating our current wave," Dr. Scott C. Roberts, associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale Medicine, told TODAY.

He added that he's glad that removing the testing requirement will alleviate concerns for Americans who travel abroad and would've previously gotten stuck if they tested positive for COVID, but "I certainly, going on a plane, would not want to be sitting next to somebody who I know has COVID."

While air filtration systems on planes are effective at reducing spread, "if your seat mate has COVID, there's really nothing you can do to protect against that, especially at a time when masking mandates have been removed for many flights," Roberts said.

He anticipates that the change will increase U.S. COVID rates, but he doesn't believe it will have too much of an impact because domestic flights have not had testing requirements, and COVID is already surging in much of the U.S. "But it definitely will not improve things," he stressed.

Roberts said that he supports to the CDC's decision to revisit the testing requirement in 90 days, especially given the prevalence of new variants like BA.4 and BA.5, first identified in South Africa and now spreading across the U.S.

He also expressed concerns for people who cannot be vaccinated or are immunocompromised who are traveling internationally.

"A lot of the public health protections that we have, masking and testing, seeing these both go away, I think it's just going to compound on the issue for these vulnerable people," Roberts explained. "I have patients who asked me, 'What should I do?' And I don't have a good answer."

"Travel is from a COVID standpoint just getting riskier and riskier," he added.