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Why the CDC now recommends getting 3 COVID-19 tests when traveling internationally

Millions traveling for Thanksgiving despite warning
Millions traveling for Thanksgiving despite dire CDC warning 02:06

One coronavirus test may no longer be enough to assuage fears of the virus while traveling for the holidays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidelines to recommend that Americans looking to travel abroad take a total of three COVID-19 tests before and after their flights.

The CDC has already urged people not to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday as coronavirus cases surge around the country. But that hasn't stopped millions of people from hitting the road or boarding planes in the highest numbers seen since the pandemic began.

Over the weekend, the CDC updated its guidance for Americans traveling out of the country, now recommending they get tested three times for each trip.

The CDC recommends the following testing schedule

  • Get tested with a viral test 1-3 days before the flight. 
  • Get tested 3-5 days after the flight, in addition to isolating for 7 days. Travelers should stay home for the full week even after testing negative and should increase their isolation to 14 days if not getting tested. 
  • Get tested 1-3 days before returning. 

In addition, the CDC emphasizes that all travelers should delay flights while awaiting test results. 

The recommendation is in part due to the high risks of exposure associated with travel, including taking public transportation or a ridesharing service to and from the airport, waiting in long security lines, interacting with frequently-touched surfaces, interacting with crowds and sitting within 6 feet of people for hours. 

Millions pack airports, roads despite warnings from health experts 03:22

"Testing before and after travel can reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19," the guidelines state. "Testing does not eliminate all risk, but when paired with a period of staying at home and everyday precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, it can make travel safer by reducing spread on planes, in airports, and at destinations."

"A negative test does not mean that you were not exposed or that you will not develop COVID-19," the CDC said. False-negative results are possible, and tests are not good at detecting low levels of virus soon after infection. A subsequent test may come back positive just a day or two later.

Officials recommend traveling with a copy of your test results, as you will likely be asked for them. If test results are positive, all travel should be canceled. Immediately isolate instead and follow public health recommendations.

Public health officials are concerned that an uptick in holiday travel may make the pandemic dramatically worse.

"One of the things we're really concerned about is that, as we get into this Thanksgiving season, you're not going to see an increase until weeks later. Things lag. So what you don't want to see is another spike in cases as we get colder and colder into December," Dr. Anthony Fauci told "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "We can really be in a very difficult situation.

Still, millions of people are already traveling for Thanksgiving, and experts say it's guaranteed that the number of coronavirus cases will soon surge even higher. The number of cases in the U.S. has now surged past 12.4 million, with over 257,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Hospitals in many parts of the country warn they are already running out of beds and staff to care for a rising number of severely ill patients.

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