By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, Forbes
What’s the difference between a Level 4 Travel Advisory that says “do not travel” and a Level 4 Travel Health Notice to “avoid all travel”? Today the answer is: 107 countries and territories.
Travelers have been receiving conflicting risk assessments from the U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of now, the CDC puts 141 countries at Level 4 risk, compared to just 34 on the State Department’s Level 4 list. Those numbers are about to become much more aligned.
Yesterday, the State Department announced that it will add scores of countries to Level 4 advisory status, vastly extending the U.S. government’s “do not travel” guidance to cover about 80% of countries around the globe.
As you might expect, the State Department and CDC have different systems for assessing risk in a given country. The CDC’s Travel Health Notices system is strictly based on the health risks faced by travelers, while health is just one of many factors the State Department considers when determining its Travel Advisories. Other considerations include widespread violent or organized crime, terrorism threats, kidnapping threats, civil unrest, a natural disaster or a short-term event such as an election.
That’s why it’s possible for the United Kingdom to be deemed a Level 4 risk (”avoid all travel”) by the CDC at the same time it is assessed as a Level 3 risk (”reconsider travel”) by the State Department. Conversely, Chad is currently deemed a Level 3 risk by the CDC but a Level 4 risk by the State Department.
Early on in the pandemic, the State Department issued a blanket Level 4 Travel Advisory on all foreign travel and then lifted it four and a half months later, last August. But now the pendulum is swinging back.
In a statement yesterday, the State Department said there’s an “unprecedented risk to travelers” from the coronavirus pandemic, and that the Level 4 updates would “better reflect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) science-based Travel Health Notices.”
As travelers face ongoing risks due COVID-19, we have updated our Travel Advisories to better reflect @CDC’s science-based Travel Health Notices. We also considered logistics like testing availability and travel restrictions for U.S. citizens. https://t.co/Eu0gas8DZg. pic.twitter.com/R7GMnk8DIN
— Travel – State Dept (@TravelGov) April 19, 2021
Mind you, there has also been a recent re-alignment in the other direction. Back in November 2020, the CDC changed its three-level notice system to a four-level system for Covid-19 and, according to the CDC website, to share “a common 4-level structure with the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Advisory.
Here’s the language both agencies use to describe their respective risk levels:
State Department: “Do Not Travel. This is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or to leave as soon as it is safe to do so. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.”
CDC: “Very high level of Covid-19. Travelers should avoid all travel to these destinations.”
State Department: “Reconsider Travel. Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.”
CDC: “High level of Covid-19. Travelers should avoid all nonessential travel to these destinations.”
State Department: “Exercise Increased Caution. Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.”
CDC: “Moderate level of Covid-19. Travelers at increased risk for severe illness from Covid-19 should avoid all nonessential travel to these destinations.”
State Department: “Exercise Normal Precautions. This is the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk. There is some risk in any international travel. Conditions in other countries may differ from those in the United States and may change at any time.”
CDC: “Low level of Covid-19. All travelers should wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet/2 meters from people who are not from your travel group, avoid crowds, wash their hands often or use hand sanitizer, and watch their health for signs of illness.”
While the State Department and CDC are unified in discouraging Americans from traveling at this time, it’s also clear that millions are ignoring their guidance. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is screening well over a million travelers per day at airports around the country, and U.S. airlines are steadily adding new international routes in preparation what they hope is a busy summer.
Neither a State Department Level 4 Travel Advisory nor a CDC Travel Health Notice prohibits Americans from traveling to a particular destination. But the State Department says, “If a U.S. citizen decides to travel there anyway, we strongly urge them to read our information on high-risk travel.”