State Department warns Americans to rethink all travel plans

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The rise of new COVID-19 variants will make it harder for U.S. consumers to travel in and out of the country

Just when Americans were getting their COVID-19 vaccinations and cranking up their wanderlust for traveling again, the U.S. State Department is telling those people to put the suitcase away and rethink their plans.

“Seriously reconsider going overseas right now. If you’re overseas right now, it’s going to be harder to come home for a while,” cautioned the State Department’s Ian Brownlee in a briefing. “Everyone needs to be prepared to be potentially seriously disrupted in their trip.”

The reason behind Brownlee’s warning relates to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new COVID-19 testing requirements for travelers, which went into effect after new variants of the virus were detected around the world. 

Those new rules include being tested no more than 3 days before traveling by air into the United States and, prior to boarding, showing the airline proof of a negative test result. Travelers may also present a letter from a health care provider or a public health official stating that they are cleared to travel.

No fun in the sun

Airline operators and cruise lines were anticipating a return to travel from those who got vaccinated, especially those who wanted to get away to the Caribbean. However, the new COVID-19 variants popping up in the Caribbean have forced the State Department to put Jamaica, the British Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas all on the new travel restriction list.

One particular hotspot is the Cancun, Mexico area, where Brownlee says there are tens of thousands of U.S. citizens seeking to travel back to the United States. 

“We don’t have a health unit within 600 miles of Cancun,” Brownlee said, adding that the agency has no plans to set up testing stations. “We do not have the capacity to provide this sort of testing overseas.”

Be informed and prepared

The Biden administration is handling the pandemic much differently than its predecessor, and Brownlee parroted that in the briefing. 

“Be informed and be prepared. The State Department is committed to upholding the administration’s efforts to combat the pandemic through prudent, science-driven measures. Many countries are updating their requirements for travel, given the evolving nature of the pandemic. And today, to keep us all safe, the United States joins them,” he said.

Brownlee went on to say that the State Department’s travel advisories can change day-to-day depending on the migration and transmission of the virus. He said that the department is taking the situation country-by-country and that it’s almost a given that travelers will need to stay put and won’t be allowed back into the U.S. until further notice in situations where no tests are available.

And if all else fails?

Brownlee said the U.S. isn’t going to leave anyone completely stranded in a foreign country with no hope of getting the tests necessary to return home.

“So this is not a question of saying, ‘Good luck, you’re on your own. But it is important to remember that...the financial assistance we are able to provide is in the form of a loan. It is not a grant. And it is also important to note that the U.S. Government cannot... provide medical services overseas to private U.S. citizens,” he said.

To counteract what might be viewed as a harsh stance, Brownlee softened the situation by saying that there are facilities for U.S. citizens overseas and that the U.S. can provide information about where consumers can get tests and medical help if necessary.

“If they need medical assistance, we can provide information on local medical providers, that sort of thing, and...we can put them in touch with family members back in the United States who might be able to provide financial support,” he said. “If they’re, in fact, truly destitute overseas...we have mechanisms for providing loans to those people.”

One important note for Medicare and Medicaid members

Brownlee closed out his worst-case scenarios by reminding people that Medicare and Medicaid are not applicable overseas. Some U.S. insurance policies -- including travel insurance -- might cover situations like this, but not in all cases. 

“So that’s why it’s so terribly important for U.S. citizens who are preparing to travel overseas to find out whether their medical coverage goes with them. They should not assume it does. They need to verify that,” Brownlee said.

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