- The U.S. will open its borders to vaccinated foreign nationals for nonessential purposes in “early November.”
- Only foreign tourists who have been fully vaccinated with a drug approved by the WHO can enter.
- Travelers with vaccines that don’t have the WHO’s approval wonder when they can enter the U.S.
When India was facing a massive COVID-19 surge earlier this year, Jayaram Tadimeti was happy to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Now, it’s a decision he partially regrets.
The 32-year-old got two doses of Covaxin, a COVID-19 vaccine popular in India, in May and June. He worries his vaccine choice will prevent him from visiting friends and family in the U.S. when the country starts allowing international visitors to enter next month. Only foreign nationals who have been fully vaccinated with a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or World Health Organization can enter the country. As of Thursday, that list does not include Covaxin.
Tadimeti recently moved to Toronto and purchased plane tickets to attend a friend’s wedding in Texas over Thanksgiving weekend, but he’s not sure he’ll be able to attend.
“It’s financially draining, it’s emotionally draining,” Tadimeti told USA TODAY. “We’ve been talking via video calls but it’s a different thing to meet in person and sit down and talk. But I don’t see that happening soon. You feel lonely and left out.”
U.S. officials’ decision to revamp the country’s entry requirements was welcome news for many travelers, but those who received vaccines that haven’t gotten the WHO’s stamp of approval are left wondering when they’ll get a chance to reconnect with loved ones in the states.
Additional guidance to come
The U.S. recently announced that foreign travelers will be able to enter by air, land or ferry if they are fully vaccinated starting in “early November.” The CDC has said that air travelers will need to be fully vaccinated with WHO-approved vaccines, and government officials said land borders will likely have the same vaccine mandates. A start date for the new travel system has not yet been announced.
The FDA has authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use during the pandemic: Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech, the last of which has received the FDA’s full stamp of approval. Vaccines with WHO approval include:
- Johnson and Johnson
- Oxford-AstraZeneca (Covishield)
The CDC has not laid out details on how foreign nationals with vaccines not authorized by the WHO will be able to enter the U.S.
When asked how, or if, U.S. citizens who are foreign residents will be able to enter without the approved vaccines, spokesperson Caitlin Shockey said the “CDC will release additional guidance and information as the travel requirements are finalized.”
That leaves U.S. citizens like Lauren White, who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina and recently got her second dose of the Sputnik V vaccine, wondering when she’ll be able to see her family in the states again.
White had planned to return to Ohio in December with her husband – who received the WHO-approved Sinopharm vaccine – and their children, who are U.S. citizens and remain too young to get vaccinated. The trip would give her parents a chance to finally meet their second grandson, seven-month-old Julian, in person.
At this point, White’s not sure if the trip will happen.
“I’ve told people I’m not exactly looking forward to my trip right now,” she said. “It’s very overwhelming when you feel like, what if I can’t get out? Or what if I can’t get in? I can’t emotionally allow myself to get excited yet.”
White said she understands why the U.S. would implement travel restrictions like vaccine mandates, but she’s not sure why the FDA or WHO haven’t approved Sputnik V for emergency use yet.
The WHO said earlier this month that it was still reviewing global approval on Sputnik V after citing issues at a production plant a few months ago. The Russian vaccine has been approved for use in 70 countries and drew an effectiveness rating of 91.6% in a phase three trial of about 20,0000 Russians, according to a February study from the British medical journal Lancet.
White hopes she’ll be allowed to enter the U.S., even if it means going through additional testing or a quarantine period.
“They have to consider that people in Latin America or people in other countries, they’ll take what they can get in terms of a vaccine,” White said. “This can’t prevent families from being reunited.”
► Travel vaccine mandate:Foreign travelers with COVID-19 vaccines approved by FDA, WHO can enter the US in November
Other foreign nationals, like U.S. citizen Jack McConnell, hope the U.S. will allow entry for those who have recently recovered from COVID-19.
McConnell lives outside of St. Petersburg, Russia with his wife and has been trying to bring her to the U.S. to meet his family. They also plan to move to the states. The two turned down the Sputnik vaccine to wait for other vaccines to become available, but McConnell believes they’re already full of antibodies after getting sick with COVID-19 a couple of months ago.
He’s in no rush to get vaccinated now that he’s recovered. Traveling to a nearby country for a Western-approved vaccine is common in Russia, but McConnell said it can be expensive since he would need to make two separate trips for both rounds of the shots or stay abroad for weeks.
“It would be nice if everybody just kind of got on the same page (with their vaccine mandates),” McConnell said. “We don’t want to get a vaccine and all of a sudden it’s not recognized (in Russia) … or we get the wrong one and we can’t go to the U.S. ”
McConnell is no longer hanging onto any hope of bringing his wife to the U.S. until the spring or summer of 2022 or beyond.
“This whole process has been frustrating,” he said.
‘I’m not sure which vaccine I should be getting’
The travel policy could drive some to double-up on COVID-19 vaccines to avoid travel restrictions, a move that is not yet recommended by health officials.
Eden Washburn, 24 of Arizona, returned to the states in July after a two-year stint in Moscow with her boyfriend and plans to move abroad again soon. The U.S. citizen received Sputnik while in Russia and is following up with Moderna to avoid any potential work or travel restrictions.
“I’m trying to get hired somewhere here … and there were some places like ‘Oh, we really want you to be vaccinated,’ so I was like yeah, I’ll go ahead and get vaccinated again,” Washburn said.
She added that if she hadn’t already gotten a Moderna shot for work, she “definitely, definitely” would have gotten another WHO-approved shot to travel.
“So far, I’m OK (with both vaccines),” Washburn said.
The CDC recommends only getting one vaccine product since data on the safety and efficacy of mixing two is limited, but new research shows a mix-and-match approach to vaccines can be effective. A National Institutes of Health study released Wednesday found the Johnson & Johnson shot followed by either Moderna or Pfizer as a booster can elicit a stronger immune response than two doses of J&J.
Tadimeti is also considering a booster shot with a different vaccine but wants more guidance from officials before getting another jab.
“I’m not sure which vaccine I should be getting, or what the effects would be combining it with Covaxin,” he said.
The Covaxin vaccine was authorized for emergency use by India’s Central Drugs and Standards Committee in January and showed clinical efficacy of 78% in phase three trials. The WHO said on Oct. 5 that its decision on the vaccine was “still pending.”
While Tadimeti has regrets about getting Covaxin, earlier circumstances in India were dire, pushing him and others to get any available vaccine as soon as possible. In May, India was setting global records with more than 400,000 new cases reported daily, and Tadimeti was left watching friends and family succumb to the virus, including a 35-year-old friend and father of two.
“He was the last person that I would expect to be affected by COVID, so that really drove us to get the vaccines as soon as possible,” Tadimeti said. “We thought it didn’t matter what (brand)the vaccine was. … I would have gotten Covishield if I knew.”
Contributing: John Bacon, Jorge L. Ortiz and Elinor Aspegren of USA TODAY, Associated Press. Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.