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COVID testing requirement to fly to the U.S. will be dropped


Travel into the United States gets easier starting this weekend. People will no longer need a negative COVID test before departure for the United States. A senior Biden administration official affirms this change. NPR's Pien Huang joins us now. Good morning.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How different is this than the rules as of today and for the last long while?

HUANG: Well, it is a big change. I mean, for the last year and a half, the CDC has required anyone coming into the U.S. by plane to test negative for COVID within 24 hours of boarding their flight. You know, you had to submit your negative test to the airline. You had to sign an attestation saying that your test results were true. And this was to prevent people with active COVID cases from flying into the country. Now, as you mentioned, senior administration officials have confirmed to NPR that this requirement is lifting as of 12 a.m. - 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, people flying into the U.S. will no longer have this testing requirement.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about how this applies to me because sometimes I leave the country for reporting, and I'm contemplating doing that in the coming months. I guess the good news for me is I no longer have to fear being shut out of the United States if I test positive, right?

HUANG: Mmm hmm. Yeah, absolutely.

INSKEEP: But there's also this downside that I can't feel reassured that I'm on a plane full of people who just tested negative.

HUANG: That's true, Steve. And, I mean, that's - I think that's the case for a lot of travelers that are, you know, sort of abroad right now or going to travel abroad and are thinking about what this means for them. I mean, for - from the CDC's perspective, what they say is that they've looked at the science and the data, and they've decided that tests are no longer needed right now. The White House says that we're in a phase of the pandemic where there's vaccines, there's treatments available that can prevent serious illness, death. These methods work against the variants that are currently circulating. And 90% of U.S. counties right now currently have low or medium COVID community levels, which means their case counts and hospitalizations are somewhat under control.

Now, the administration has also been getting pressure from travel and airline industries that say that this testing requirement has been expensive, it's been onerous, and it's kept travelers at bay. I actually talked with Dr. Lin Chen. I caught her an hour ago as she was on a walking tour of Rotterdam. And she's past president of the International Society of Travel Medicine and a travel infectious disease doctor at Harvard. She thinks that lifting the requirement will actually lift a lot of anxiety for travelers.

LIN CHEN: Everybody's trying to figure out where can they get tested, where they can get a rapid test. And then a lot of travelers have had to think about contingencies if they were to test positive.

HUANG: They might end up stranded. They might have to quarantine in another country. And she says that a lot of other countries have already lifted their testing requirements. So the U.S. has been kind of conservative in holding the line until now. Now, the CDC does say that they're going to reassess in 90 days. They reserve the right to bring back the testing requirement if, say, a new global variant emerges or things get kind of out of control.

INSKEEP: There wasn't a testing requirement domestically, was there?

HUANG: No, there hasn't been. And, you know, it sort of comes as this pattern of lifting travel regulations. You know, so, for instance, just a couple months ago, the CDC's national mask mandate for travelers domestically was struck down.


HUANG: Now, Chen says that this requirement - you know, lifting the testing requirement might lead to an increase in cases. It could even introduce new variants. But what it definitely does is shift the burden from a legal regulation to individual responsibility.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Pien Huang. Thanks so much.

HUANG: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.