CDC: Yes, it's okay for vaccinated people to travel -- but they shouldn't do it right now

Rochelle Walensky’s having a rough week.

Today she finally closed the loophole on the previous CDC guidance about what vaccinated people can and can’t do. Initially the agency said it was fine for the vaccinated to congregate together indoors or with unvaccinated people in a single household who are low-risk (i.e. grandchildren). But they stopped short of saying that it was safe for the immunized to start traveling again, which was confounding in the case of air travel. Very few outbreaks have been traced to airplanes, probably because the air in the cabin is replaced so frequently during flight. Combine that with mask mandates and the already minuscule risk that a vaccinated person might be infected and there seemed to be no good reason why people who’ve had their shots couldn’t fly again safely.

The CDC has now made amends, affirming that they can travel at low risk. They just … shouldn’t.

Three days ago she told Rachel Maddow that vaccinated people “don’t carry the virus.” If that’s true, why would she oppose immunized people traveling because of case counts?

Sometimes you can best express yourself in the form of a meme:

Earlier I pointed out that, in her own strange way, Walensky’s heart seems to be in the right place. She’s trying to loosen up restrictions that don’t make sense. She said it was safe to reopen schools before all teachers were vaccinated, she said it was okay to space kids three feet apart in classrooms instead of six, now she’s giving vaccinated people a little nudge that it’s safe to travel again — eventually. But going from “impending doom” to “vaccinated people don’t carry the virus” to “you’re free to travel but not really” is a lot for the average joe to have to digest in the span of a week.

I’m sitting here now trying to hash out how it might somehow safe for vaccinated people to fly and yet still not a good idea because parts of the country are experiencing a wave. That doesn’t compute easily, but to play devil’s advocate, here are three possibilities.

1. Walensky has backed off her claim that vaccinated people “don’t carry the virus,” which was, after all, false. They do get infected, just in very small numbers. According to Washington state’s data, it happens at a rate of around one in 10,000. If a million vaccinated people travel, that’s 100 new vectors of infection potentially. Walensky’s a public-health bureaucrat and so her goal is limiting transmissions to whatever extent possible, particularly at a precarious moment when the country’s on its way to herd immunity but not out of the woods in states like Michigan and New York. She’d rather keep a million people home for another month than risk 100 more potential chains of transmission.

2. More travel by the vaccinated potentially puts more unvaccinated people at risk. If tourism starts ramping up again before we reach herd immunity, the surge in demand will produce a surge in hiring to accommodate it — which is good! But some of the people who take those tourist jobs won’t yet have had their shots and will end up getting infected when they’re exposed to other unvaccinated people. Relatedly, as the vaccinated start returning to tourist spots, some unvaccinated will be drawn to return too even though they’re at risk. They’ll have contact with each other, seeding more infections. The CDC’s approach from the start of the pandemic has been to discourage socializing by everyone in the expectation that socializing by anyone will inspire others to do the same. Walensky’s just following that logic here. If the immunized start moving around again, the unimmunized will too. Best to have everyone stay home until 50-60 percent or whatever have had their first doses.

3. Variants. No one knows if there’s a vaccine-resistant strain lurking somewhere out there that might be picked up or unwittingly spread by a vaccinated person. Even a variant that the vaccines are successful against, like the British one, could conceivably “break through” and infect a particular vaccinated person and then spread locally after that person returns home. It’s valid to worry about things like that. But I also worry that “what about the variants?” will become an all-purpose justification by public-health experts this summer to ask people to continue to stay home. If the big threat to the vaccinated is now hypothetical, i.e. a variant that may arise which can overcome the vaccines, then we’ll all be stuck at home forever. There’s no way to eliminate that threat.

Here’s Walensky wrapping up a week of mixed messaging that would have had people calling for her to be fired if she were a Trump official.