USA

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Douglass Benning, Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, and Dr. Cindy Friedman, Centers for Disease Control Travelers’ Health Branch, on U.S. Policy for International Travelers Related to COVID-19

MR PRICE: Hey. Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining us today for this on-the-record briefing to discuss the administration’s updated policy for international travel to the United States. In particular, we’ll discuss today the presidential proclamation that was issued yesterday and how it changes requirements for international travelers, as well as the implementation of CDC’s orders regarding vaccines, testing, and contact tracing for international travelers.

To help explain all of this and what travelers should be thinking about as these new rules go into effect of November 8th, we have joining us today the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs here at the State Department, Douglass Benning. We’re also joined by the chief of the Travelers’ Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Cindy Friedman.

Just a reminder that the contents of this briefing are on the record, but they are embargoed until the end of the call.

So without further ado, I will turn it over to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Benning.

MR BENNING: Great. Thanks very much, Ned. And good morning, everybody. Thanks a lot for joining us today. As Ned said, I am Douglass Benning, and I’m very happy to be here to explain a little bit more in detail the upcoming changes for international travelers. And I’m very glad to welcome my colleague from the CDC, Dr. Friedman, who’s here to answer questions about the science and public health framework behind these changes.

So first I want to reiterate what others have already said, which is the new policy is based on public health principles; it’s consistent; and it’s stringent. The goal here is the protection of everyone’s health and safety, whether they live here in the U.S. or whether they’re traveling here to visit us. So as of November the 8th, foreign national nonimmigrant travelers arriving by air will be required to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of vaccination status and testing prior to boarding an airplane to travel to the United States. I’ll let Dr. Friedman speak to the specific vaccines that will be accepted.

This new policy replaces the previous presidential proclamations that limited travel from specific countries. The proclamation issued yesterday applies to all foreign national air travelers, making it more consistent. We’ve updated the policy, but of course our commitment to combating the pandemic remains the same. Our message to potential travelers is: be fully vaccinated before you travel; get a COVID test before arriving here; comply with all public health measures, including masking and social distancing; and make sure you understand the new requirements before making travel plans.

We would also add that the new proclamation, unlike the previous proclamation, does not restrict the adjudication of visas overseas at our embassies and consulates. Because we’re prioritizing public health, exceptions to the policy are going to be extremely limited. They include children and certain individuals from countries where vaccines are not yet readily accessible.

There have also been updates to the existing testing requirement for boarding a plane to come to the United States. For those who are fully vaccinated, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, LPRs, the testing requirement remains three days before boarding a flight. U.S. citizens and LPRs who are not yet vaccinated or cannot prove vaccination status will need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day before their flight’s departure. Unvaccinated foreign nationals who meet the limited exceptions to travel will also need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of departure.

I want to emphasize this message for vaccinated U.S. citizens and LPRs for making plans to travel internationally: Make sure that you are traveling with proof of your vaccination so that you have three days to get tested before your return flight versus just one day.

Here at Consular Affairs, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas, and so we want to make sure that everyone who is traveling is informed of these new requirements. So thank you. Thanks to all of you who are helping us to do so.

Finally, we certainly know that the resumption of international travel for those in countries affected by the previous presidential proclamations has been highly anticipated by you and our foreign friends who are making plans to come visit. Please make sure that everybody visits travel.state.gov and cdc.gov to understand the new requirements, and make sure you’re ready to meet them so that you can have a safe and smooth trip.

We’d also note that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted, of course, in profound reduction in the department’s visa processing capacity. We continue to seek ways to safely and efficiently process these applications around the world in a manner consistent always with science and public health. We are fully committed to reducing these backlogs as quickly and safely as possible.

So now I’d like to turn it over to Dr. Friedman, so she can explain more about the new policies and the public health principles behind them. Over to you, Dr. Friedman.

MS FRIEDMAN: Thank you. Yesterday, CDC issued three orders to implement the presidential proclamation to operationalize the new international air travel system in accordance with appropriate public health protocols to ensure the safety of international air travel. These orders include operational details putting in place stringent and consistent international air travel policy that is guided by public health.

So I’m going to go through the three orders now. The first order is a vaccination requirement for non U.S.-citizens who are not immigrants. So on November 8th, air travelers to the United States, who are non-U.S. citizens, who are not immigrants, will be required to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of their vaccination status before flying to the U.S. As a reminder, there are separate requirements for immigrants regarding vaccination and medical screening. The airlines will verify vaccination status in the same way that they have been and will continue to do with proof of a predeparture negative test result.

For purposes of entry to the United States vaccines accepted will included FDA-approved or authorized and the WHO emergency use listed or EUL vaccines. There will be very limited exceptions to the vaccination requirements for non.-U.S. citizens who are not immigrants. CDC has determined the very narrow list of exemptions, including children under 18 and those countries with less than 10 percent vaccination rates due to lack of availability of vaccines.

The next order is an amendment to the testing requirement for all air travelers, regardless of citizenship. And as Deputy Assistant Secretary Benning has said, the fully vaccinated air travelers or air passengers, regardless of citizenship, will continue to be required to show a predeparture negative test taken within three days of travel before boarding. Vaccinated air passengers will be required to show proof of vaccination to qualify for this three-day testing window. Unvaccinated air passengers, including unvaccinated U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, will now be required to show proof of a negative test taken within one day of departure to the United States. Children under 2 years old do not need to test, and there are also accommodations for people who have a documented recovery from COVID-19 in the past 90 days.

And the final order I’ll talk about is the – is for the collection of contact information. All air passengers to the United States will also be required to provide basic contact information to airlines before boarding flights to the U.S. This will allow airlines to better coordinate with public health agencies to share information when it’s needed to keep the public safe and informed, and as well as to strengthen the ability of public health agencies to rapidly identify and contact people in the U.S. who may have been exposed to a communicable disease, such as COVID-19.

In addition to these orders, all travelers need to plan ahead before traveling and follow all airline and destination requirements. That includes mask wearing, proof of vaccination, testing, or even quarantine. U.S. travelers need to be prepared to show proof of a negative test before they travel to the United States and should make arrangements for testing in advance of travel if possible. Vaccinated U.S. travelers will need to carry and provide proof of vaccination to the airlines to qualify for the three-day testing window; otherwise, one-day tests will be required.

As we all know, the best way to slow transmission of COVID-19 and the emergence of new variants is to act quickly through vaccination, layered with additional mitigation measures, including timely and effective case detection through testing, contact tracing, and public health follow-up of international travelers. And with that, I’ll stop. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Great. Thanks to you, both. We will now turn to questions. Let’s start with the line of Francesco Fontemaggi.

OPERATOR: Please stand by. I will let you know when your line is open. One moment, please.

And your line is open. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you all for doing this. I wanted to make sure I understand how it will work for travelers. What kind of proof of vaccination will they have to show? Is this – and I mean, like in Europe, you have this European pass with a QR code showing you’re vaccinated. Will it be the one to show to the airline? And there are some particular cases in many countries in Europe when you have recovered from COVID you are allowed to just have one shot of vaccine to be considered fully vaccinated. Will that be enough for the U.S. to allow those travelers into the country? Thank you.

MS FRIEDMAN: Sure. I’ll take that one. The passengers will need to show their vaccination status either via a paper record, a photo of their paper record, or a digital application. The airlines will need to match the name and date of birth to confirm the passenger is the same person reflected on the proof of vaccination. They’ll need to determine that the record was issued by an official source – for example, a public health agency or a government agency – in the country where the vaccine was given. And they’ll need to review the essential information for determining if the passenger meets CDC’s definition for fully vaccinated, which is the vaccine name and the number of doses received of the vaccine.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Simon Lewis.

OPERATOR: One moment, please. And your line is open. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to clarify one thing. You mentioned that this does not restrict adjudication of visas. I wonder if you could just clarify what the difference will be on – for foreign embassies and consulates, because we’re hearing that foreign nationals are complaining at the moment they can’t get visa appointments. Does this mean that appointments are now going to open up? And what’s the kind of timeline for that? And is there more – are more resources being kind of put into making more appointments available because – for an expected rush of people trying to get them? Thank you.

MR BENNING: Hi, thanks, this is Douglass. I’ll try to answer that one. So yeah, as I noted in my opening statement, of course, we are aware that there will be increased interest in being able to apply for a non-immigrant visa once this new proclamation is in effect. And of course, the pandemic really did have a huge impact on our ability to safely, both for the applying public – the traveling public as well as for our own staff, to adjudicate non-immigrant visa applications.

So we are committed to addressing that. We are taking a look at a variety of means of safely increasing our capacity to adjudicate non-immigrant visa applications. I know that now in many locations appointments for tourist visas are greatly restricted, as you noted, and we’re going to continue to work on that, particularly in the context of this presidential proclamation. So obviously a lot more to come on that.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.

OPERATOR: One moment, please. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. My understanding is one of the exceptions is for those who need to travel for emergency or humanitarian reasons. Could you give a little more detail on what those reasons might be? And are embassies adjudicating that? Who is making those decisions? Thank you.

MS FRIEDMAN: I can start, and then – this is Dr. Friedman, but then State can add in. So there will be a very limited number of humanitarian exceptions, and they’ll be looked at on a case-by-case basis. And an example could be a lifesaving medical treatment that’s needed. I think the State Department can speak to other potential limited humanitarian exemptions. And a lot of the details of the process will be worked out in the coming days.

Over to you, Doug.

MR BENNING: Right, hi, this is Douglass. Yeah, so obviously the CDC is the entity that has the authority to make these determinations, so we’re working out the process via which the department will pass those requests over to CDC for adjudication. So that – again, working out the process.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Conor Finnegan.

OPERATOR: One moment, please. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hey. Just two follow-ups as well. To be clear, the previous country-specific bans are now being lifted, correct? So if you’re a foreign national who traveled through Iran or Brazil, you can now travel to the U.S. if you’re fully vaccinated?

And then second, do you have a list of the countries that are below the 10 percent threshold? And will the local U.S. embassy announce when a country has gone above that threshold and the requirement kicks in? How will you sort of inform the public in that country? Thank you.

MS FRIEDMAN: Hi, yeah. So the first question, yes, the previous 212 Act or presidential proclamation travel ban has been lifted, and so fully vaccinated foreign nationals from those countries – non-citizens – would be admitted.

And then the second part of your question was about the list of 10 percent – under-10 percent vaccination availability countries. CDC has that list and it’s posted on our website on – in technical instructions for the airlines. We are planning to update that list every three months as the situation changes.

MR BENNING: And hey, this is Douglass. I’ll just jump in real quick to note that the ability of those folks to travel to the U.S. is effective as of November the 8th – exactly.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to David Koenig.

OPERATOR: One moment, please. Your line is open. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, a couple of questions I wanted to ask have been asked and answered. I don’t think Francesco got answers to his questions, but on the vaccines, so Dr. Friedman, you said that you’ll update the list of the under-10 percent countries every three months. What about the vaccines, if – for instance, if Sputnik gets WHO approval at some point – and how quickly would it be added – or any other vaccine?

MS FRIEDMAN: Right. So as the situation changes and as WHO continues to review and authorize or put vaccines on their EUL list, we will adapt and change our list of vaccines. So we will keep looking at the vaccines that are added to any FDA or WHO list.

QUESTION: And, like, instantaneously that day?

MS FRIEDMAN: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: As in on a daily basis or is there a lag – there’s going to be a lag time?

MS FRIEDMAN: Well, it will automatically be added when it is added to the official list. Whenever it’s announced, we would make the change.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Oriana Pawlyk.

OPERATOR: One moment, please. Your line is open. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Oriana. Thank you so much. So since there is no standard of collecting information across the board, in terms of contact tracing, is the State Department telling countries for prospective foreign travelers to discontinue using, for example, third-party booking websites since those websites may not necessarily collect the records that the CDC is looking for?

MR BENNING: Hi, this is Douglass. No, we are not making any recommendations as it relates to gathering information or for making appointments. This is really for the CDC and the airlines to coordinate.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Josh Wingrove.

OPERATOR: One moment, please.

QUESTION: Hi there. Can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

MR BENNING: Yes.

QUESTION: Great, thank you so much. The exemptions for countries with sub-10 percent vaccines availability, as I understand it, those are for visas that are non-tourist visas. Do you have any sense of how big a group that is? For instance, how many non-tourist visas were issued from those countries in a recent year? And do you expect that to be a pretty large cohort?

And is it possible to go to those countries as an unvaccinated person not from those countries and then sort of re-route through them to the U.S., similarly to how Europeans could cool their heels for two weeks in Canada and then come down under the previous order? Thank you.

MR BENNING: Hi, this is Douglass. So for the first part of your question, we post all of our visa statistics on travel.state.gov. So I would recommend for the – for figuring out what the level is, just taking a quick look there.

And for the – and I’m sorry, could you repeat your second question again? My apologies.

OPERATOR: Please press 1 and 0 to repeat your question. And please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Sorry. I’m wondering whether the exemptions apply to people traveling from those countries or to foreign nationals of those countries. In other words, under the previous system, it wasn’t a ban on Europeans coming to the U.S.; it was a ban on people – foreign nationals coming directly from. So a European could perhaps spend two weeks in a third-party country and then come in. And I’m wondering if unvaccinated people would be eligible to enter the U.S. on non-tourist visas if they came directly from these exempt countries even if they don’t live there.

MR BENNING: Yeah, I think that’s in the CDC order, Dr. —

MS FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I was – yeah, no, this is – it would go by your country, your nationality, your passport. The airlines won’t be able to check residency or how many months you lived in a certain place or another place. So it has to go by your passport, so the 10 percent country list, and – does that answer your question?

MR PRICE: We may have lost Josh, but we’ll have time for a final question or two. Let’s go to Poonam Sharma.

OPERATOR: Please stand by. And please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this. My question is: What about travelers who have been vaccinated with a combination of two different vaccines? Will they be allowed entry?

MS FRIEDMAN: Hi. Yeah, so CDC, we accept FDA, WHO EUL vaccines. And for the purposes of entry for travel, we accept combinations of those vaccines. We know that people from other countries sometimes have combinations for their primary series, and so for purposes of entry, those would be acceptable if they were one of the approved vaccines.

MR PRICE: And we’ll take a final question from Joel Gehrke.

OPERATOR: Please stand by.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) if you mentioned this and I just didn’t catch it. I wanted —

OPERATOR: Please – yeah, please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. And pardon me if you mentioned it and I just didn’t catch it, but as you think of this population of 43 countries with below 10 percent vaccination rate who are eligible to come into the U.S., how do you – to what extent you believe that is or is not a risk factor in terms of bringing potentially infected – more COVID cases into the U.S.? Or do you think that the current U.S. vaccination rates are such to mitigate that issue? Or what other mitigation measures might there be?

MS FRIEDMAN: So I think right now there are – I – approximately 50 countries on the list that have very limited access, below 10 percent vaccines. And the number – and those are not people who are coming here for tourism or on a B-1, B-2 visa. They would be other visa categories. And so it’s a very small number – as Douglass said, to check the website – but it’s a very small number of visas that have been issued to folks from those countries. These people will need to sign attestations that they will get vaccinated once they arrive in the U.S. if they’re staying here for over 60 days if they’re adults.

So hopefully they will get vaccinated in the United States. And there are other mitigation measures such as testing, mask wearing that we all need to do for a layered mitigation approach. So I hope that answers your question.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone, for tuning in. Thank you very much to our speakers, PDAS Benning, Dr. Friedman. We will talk to you soon and the embargo is now lifted. Thanks, all.

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