Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on COVID-19 and International Air Travel Policy
12:43 P.M. EDT
MR. MUNOZ: Hey, everybody. This is Kevin. Happy Monday. Thank you for joining us, and apologies for the delay. A reminder — I just sent an email that you got the factsheet. The factsheet and this call are going to be embargoed now until 2:00 p.m., not 1:00 p.m. So, making sure that everybody is tracking 2:00 p.m.
As a reminder, this will be attributed to “senior administration officials.” On the call today, we have remarks from [senior administration officials]. Also on the line for the Q&A portion is [senior administration official], as well as [senior administration official].
And with that, I will hand it over to [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, and thanks for being with us today.
So, as we recently announced, starting November 8th, we are moving to a new vaccination-based international travel system.
Today, we’re taking an important step forward in operationalizing this new system as it relates to international air travel by releasing a series of documents that will help airlines and travelers get ready for November 8th and ensure a smooth transition to the new system.
Stepping back, as we laid out last month, under this new international air travel system,
These are strict safety protocols that follow the science and public health to enhance the safety of Americans here at home and the safety of international air travel.
The documents we’re releasing today provide both airlines and international travelers with detailed information on these safety protocols. The documents will include a Presidential Proclamation that establishes the new vaccination requirement; CDC orders on vaccination, testing, and contact tracing that lay out the details of the new, safer system for international air travel; and technical instructions for airlines to help them implement these new requirements.
So, let me turn to [senior administration official] for some key aspects of the vaccination and testing requirements, and then I’ll say a little after [senior administration official], before we turn it over to questions.
[Senior administration official], over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official]. Appreciate that.
So, today, CDC has issued three orders to implement the Presidential Proclamation 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 global international travel policy that is guided by public health.
The first order is a vaccination requirement for non-citizens who are not immigrants. On November 8th, air travelers to the United States who are non-citizens and who are not immigrants will be required to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of their vaccination status prior to flying to the United States.
The airlines will verify vaccination status in the same way they have been and will continue to do with the proof of a pre-departure negative test result.
For purposes of entry into the United States, vaccines will be accepted that include the FDA approved or authorized and WHO Emergency Use Listed vaccines.
There will be very limited exceptions to the vaccination requirements for non-citizens who are not immigrants. CDC has determined the very narrow list of exemptions, including children under 18 and those countries with less than a 10 percent total vaccination rate due to lack of availability of vaccines.
The next order after the vaccination order is an amendment to the testing requirement for all air travelers to the United States, regardless of citizenship.
Fully vaccinated air passengers entering the United States internationally, regardless of citizenship, will continue to be required to show a pre-departure negative COVID test taken within three days of travel prior to boarding.
For those vaccinated persons, they will be required to show proof of vaccination to qualify for this three-day testing window.
However, for unvaccinated air passengers, including unvaccinated U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, the rules will now require a test within one day of departure to the United States.
Children under two years old do not need to test. There are also accommodations for people who have a documented recovery from COVID-19 in the past 90 days with respect to the testing requirement.
The third and final order is for the collection of contact information. Air passengers to the United States will also be required to provide basic, valid contact information to airlines before boarding flights to the United States.
This will allow airlines to better coordinate with public health agencies, to share information when needed, to keep the public safe and informed, and strengthen their ability to rapidly identify and contact people in the United States 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 travel. Follow all airline and destination requirements, including mask wearing, proof of vaccination, testing, or quarantine. U.S. travelers will need to be prepared to show proof of a negative test before they’re able to 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 their vaccination to the airlines to qualify for the three-day testing window. Otherwise, a one-day test will be required.
The best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and the emergence of new variants is to act quickly to reduce the spread of infection through vaccination, layered with the additional mitigation measures — including vaccination for everyone who is eligible — and timely and effective case detection through testing, contact tracing, public health follow-up for all international travelers.
Thanks. [Senior administration official], back to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Let me just — let me just summarize a few things before we open up to questions.
So, airlines will now, after today, have the information they need to operationalize the new international air travel system starting on November 8th. We have taken the deliberate steps of giving this time to ensure implementation goes as smoothly as possible, particularly with something this wide-ranging.
As with anything of this scale, there may be moments where travelers have issues or questions in the first few weeks of implementation. And over the next two weeks, we will work across the federal government, with our airline partners, with the travel and tourism industry to communicate these new requirements to travelers. And we encourage travelers to pay close attention, as my colleague said, to information that their airlines are putting out on the steps they should be taking to prepare for travel.
We’ll also soon be sharing additional implementation details on our vaccination-based international travel system for the land border. And those will be coming soon.
As previously announced, the land border requirements will be similar to the air travel, with foreign national travelers to the U.S. for nonessential reasons, like tourism, required to be fully vaccinated starting on November 8th.
We understand the importance of international travel and are committed to ensuring a smooth transition to the new system on November 8th.
With that, let’s open it up to a few questions, Kevin.
MR. MUNOZ: Thanks, [senior administration officials]. Just a reminder for anybody that joined late: The embargo now is 2:00 p.m. Eastern, and this is attributable to “senior administration officials.”
We have time for a few questions. First question, let’s go to Zolan at New York Times.
Q Hi. Thanks so much for having this call and taking my question. I’m hoping to get some more details on the exemptions for travel to the United States. Will children under 18 pretty much broadly be exempted from entering?
Also, can you elaborate a little bit on some of the — I think there’s an exemption for those with medical conditions as well — what those might be; as well as whether you’re considering any exemptions for travelers from low-vaccinated countries, for those who might just not have access to a vaccine.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Those are great questions. [Senior administration official], do you want to take that one?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, sure. So, great questions. Thank you, Zolan. And, in fact, you hit the three highlights that I was going to mention.
So, with regards to children under 18: Yes, they will have an exemption from the vaccination requirement. And that is exactly due to the reason you mentioned. In many circumstances, children are not yet eligible for vaccines or not yet eligible for the vaccines that are authorized on this combined list of FDA and WHO EUL vaccines. So, with regard to children: Yes, that exemption applies.
With regard to other exemptions: In fact, yes, we fully are aware that the global distribution and availability of vaccines varies widely, and so there will be exemptions specifically for countries that have insufficient vaccines to have persons fully vaccinated.
In general, WHO provides a regularly updated list of countries in which the fully vaccinated population of those countries is under 10 — is under what that percentage is. And for those for whom that coverage level is under 10 percent of the entire population, they will fall into this exemption category in terms of availability.
And so, I think that — those cover both the children and the exemptions by availability, and there are others that you will see in the specifics of the Procs that are more granular in nature. But that’s the highlight.
I believe I — did I cover your question?
Q Was there also for medical? For medical (inaudible).
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, there’s medical contraindication exemptions as well for those that have severe anaphylactic allergic reactions to a prior COVID vaccine. And these will be specified both in the specific vaccination order as well as in our technical instructions that help clarify the implementation.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And let me just add, [senior administration official] — I think that’s great. Let me add one thing, which is that — while we have set a number of exemptions and they will be in the documents, this will represent a very, very small number of actual travelers to the U.S. So, these have been crafted to be narrow.
And then even in the low vaccine availability countries, people will also need to have a compelling reason to come here. So, it’s just not they’re coming here for any reason; they need to have a specific, compelling reason. So, tourist visas will not qualify for that.
So, I just wanted to be clear about the narrowness of these exemptions.
MR. MUNOZ: All right, next question. Let’s go to Dave Shepherdson at Reuters.
Q Sorry, I was on mute. Thank you for doing this call. Just to follow up on the last question: Can you tell us how many countries will be on that low vaccination list initially? At what point will those countries come off the list? Is there a certain percentage figure that will trigger their treatment as like every other country?
And have you given any indication to or any thought about expanding the list of vaccines you’ll accept to vaccines not covered by the WHO? Obviously, there are hundreds of millions of people in places like India and Russia and elsewhere that have been vaccinated with other vaccines not on the list. Is there any chance you would expand to any of those?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Thanks for your questions, Dave. Yes, so the current list that the countries that would be eligible under the 10 percent threshold is about 50 countries. The vaccination coverage data is uniformly maintained and available through WHO on a regular basis. And we will commit to reviewing the vaccination coverage information and redefining that list on — I believe it’s about a quarterly interval, but regularly along the process so that that information can be passed along and be updated.
This is all a dynamic process, including the process by which WHO and their SAGE committee look at the WHO list of vaccines that meet certain standards. And we’ve picked the U.S. FDA list and the WHO list because they go through an internationally recognized standardization process that’s easy to define.
And so, at this point in time, that’s how we’ve framed the vaccines, but we’re well aware that WHO and SAGE are continuing to look at their EUL lists on a regular basis. And specifically, some of the vaccines you mentioned are going to be under review as the data on performance of those vaccines becomes available in a regulatory process.
MR. MUNOZ: Thank you. Next question, let’s go to Kiran Stacey at the Financial Times.
Q Hi, guys. Can you hear me?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFIAL: Yep.
Q Apologies. Thanks for doing the call. I just wanted to check if there were any concerns about allowing people in who’ve been vaccinated with either Sinopharm or Sinovac, given the lack of research into how those vaccines are coping with the Delta variant.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so your point is well taken, and the idea of figuring out the vaccine effectiveness with regard to the emergence of variants — Delta or otherwise — is a really important question and process.
I want to remind folks that even with regard to the Delta variant, vaccines, you know, have been designed to reduce severe disease, hospitalization, and death as their primary endpoint.
Some of the concerns that are raised about breakthrough infections — fortunately, what we have seen is, even when persons that are fully vaccinated breakthrough with infection, one is, that’s much less common; and two, the protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death holds.
And so, I think these are the kinds of considerations that are taken into account in the WHO EUL process and in the SAGE process — is very careful assessment against endpoints.
And by and large, we have to appreciate that preventing people from getting sick, hospitalized, and dying of COVID is a top, top priority. Everything we can do to incentivize that process reduces the amount of virus that’s circulating, reduces the morbidity and mortality for those individuals, and actually reduces the strain on healthcare systems to cope with the disease of COVID.
So, that’s how we’ve addressed this issue. Over.
Q Thank you.
MR. MUNOZ: All right, we have time for a couple more questions. Let’s go to Janet Rodriguez at Univision.
Q Hi, thank you very much for doing this. Just one point of clarification: The one-day rule for vaccination will only apply to unvaccinated U.S. citizens and LPRs, correct?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. The one-day rule applies to all — so the testing order modifications apply to all incoming passengers, regardless of citizenship and regardless of visa.
What we see is, essentially, a bifurcated pathway: If you’re fully vaccinated, the ability to test up to three days prior, whereas unvaccinated persons need to show that negative test immediately prior.
And a lot of this is derived from what we’ve learned about Delta variant and other variants, which can be both more contagious and have a more rapid onset. So that window of time is shortened for those that are unvaccinated, whether — regardless of citizenship.
Q Regardless. Thank you for clarifying that. It wasn’t clear on the factsheet.
And the second question is: You said in the next couple of days we’ll get some guidance for the land travel. Are we expecting for those guidances to mirror basically what you’ve said today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], do you want to do that one? I don’t want to prejudge any (inaudible).
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, absolutely. We are following the exact same CDC guidelines. CBP is working to finalize the procedures that will be used at the land port of entries. And we should get that out in the next couple days.
MR. MUNOZ: All right. Last question. Let’s go to Leslie Josephs at NBC.
Q Hi, everyone. Thanks for taking my question. On the checking of the vaccine requirements by airlines, is this something that can be done digitally? I know United Airlines, you could upload your vax card. Or is this something that has to be done in person?
And the reason I’m asking is because a lot of foreign airlines, even some other airlines, use contract workers in other countries. Are those workers going to have to be kind of informed on what to look for? Any detail on that? And can you also just repeat the 10 percent for exemptions? Is that just for children — for minors or everybody getting an exemption?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, Leslie, good questions. Let me take the second one first. So, for children — for children under 18, there’s a uniform exemption from that vaccination requirement recognizing the lower regulatory authorization as well as availability for vaccinations in children writ large.
The proof of vaccination — your first question — is: We will accept — and this will be very clearly defined in the vaccination order and in the technical instructions — we will accept digital certificates as long as those are mapped against the same U.S. requirements.
And we’ve worked a long time with our — with various airlines and partner governments to look at those alignment of requirements.
So, digital certificate will be accepted and, as well, the opportunity to present a paper CDC vaccination card — for example, for those that are not part of a digital certificate program — that also meets our requirements will be acceptable.
So, as you brought up the United Airlines, and there are many which allow uploading your vaccine credentials in advance. And that also includes, for several of these places, uploading, you know, a copy of your — of your paper certificate. They may be rechecked at the — at the time of boarding to validate and verify the credentials against the identity of the passenger. But both a digital format and a paper format will be accepted, provided they meet all the specifications in our order and technical instructions.
Q Okay. Thank you very much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: [Senior administration official], do you want to — I know you’ve been doing a lot of conversations with the airlines. Do you want to add anything?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Certainly. My colleague covered it well. I would just say that, you know, I think as the process goes on, initially there may be things that are more manual in nature and perhaps more paper. But as carriers are able to bring online more digital systems, we probably will see the use of those types of systems increase.
But we want to provide flexibility to ensure that both passengers who have paper or digital presentations of their vaccination documentation as well as the carrier’s ability — the airline’s ability to, you know, be able to validate and ingest that information would be, you know, flexible.
So, that’s why you see that ability, as my colleague depicted, to be able to do either. But we do expect that will mature in the coming months.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. And I would just add to what my colleagues said: There’s another reason we announced this policy on September 20th. We’re putting out all of these documents with two weeks before implementation day just to give airlines and travelers plenty of time to get used to this new system.
MR. MUNOZ: All right, that is it. As a reminder, this is embargoed until 2:00 p.m. And please reach out with any questions. And thanks, everybody.
1:05 P.M. EDT