What Does the Delta Variant Mean for Travelers?

It’s no secret that the delta variant is dominating our news and social media feeds these days. And while COVID-19 and its variants should remain on our radar, On Call’s Medical Director, Dr. Michelle Nathan, says: “There’s absolutely no reason to be completely consumed with panic–especially since there are vaccines that can help protect us from infection and prevent life-threatening illness.” Interested in learning more about what the delta variant means for travelers? Dr. Nathan is here to help by answering the most frequently asked questions we’ve received to date on this topic, as well as some actionable advice for those with upcoming travel plans.

If a traveler is vaccinated, are they still at risk for contracting the delta variant?
Dr. Nathan: Yes, but to a much lesser degree than the unvaccinated traveler.  Studies have shown a very small difference in vaccine effectiveness with the delta variant.  What we have seen clinically is that the vaccinated individuals who are getting the delta variant are getting a much milder illness and are rarely hospitalized.  They are also contagious for a far shorter period and less likely to spread the disease.

If a traveler has had COVID before, can they still contract the delta variant?
Dr. Nathan: Yes.  Immunity from prior COVID-19 infection is complicated; some people have a strong response, while others don’t.  Since there is no way to know what kind of response a traveler has had, it’s best to assume that they are at risk of contracting the Delta variant and having severe illness. Vaccination provides the most reliable protection and is recommended for individuals who have been previously infected with COVID-19.

Generally, how serious are these breakthrough cases?
Dr. Nathan: Most vaccinated people with normal immune systems have mild symptoms with breakthrough infections.  Most do not require hospitalization or intensive care stays.  So far, less than 5% of COVID-19 hospitalizations are from breakthrough cases.  The major risk of breakthrough cases is infecting unvaccinated people, who then have more severe disease.

Does delta cause different symptoms than other variants?
Dr. Nathan: The symptoms for the delta variant are similar to other variants, but there are some subtle changes.   Fever and shortness of breath are less likely with the delta variant.  Infected individuals will still have headaches, runny nose, sore throat, and new loss of smell/taste.  For vaccinated individuals, the symptoms of the Delta variant are less severe.  Unvaccinated individuals tend to have more severe symptoms and develop more severe disease.

How can one up their protection against COVID while traveling?
Dr. Nathan: We’ve learned a lot about infection control over the last 18 months and we can use what we’ve learned to protect ourselves during travel.  First and foremost, travelers should get vaccinated if they can.  Travelers should maintain social distancing, and when they can’t, they should wear masks (preferably a paper/surgical mask).  Travelers should wash or sanitize hands frequently and avoid touching their faces, nose, and eyes.  Additionally, they should stay outdoors as much as possible and avoid large crowds, especially when indoors.

How about children and/or those who immunocompromised how can they up their protection while traveling?
Dr. Nathan: These groups are at higher risk because they are not (or incompletely) vaccinated.  However, they can use the same methods we reviewed to decrease their risk of exposure and infection.  One of the best things to do is have all the other family or travel group members get vaccinated to protect the ones who can’t be vaccinated.

Even if a destination does not require it, what is your recommendation on testing – should travelers do a COVID test before, during, and after their trips?
Dr. Nathan: The CDC recommends testing 1-3 days prior to travel for unvaccinated travelers.  Although breakthrough cases are relatively rare, I would suggest pre-travel testing for all travelers.  If travelers are returning to the US, they will need to present documentation of a negative COVID-19 test prior to return.  The CDC recommends testing 3-5 days after travel, regardless of vaccination status.  Unvaccinated travelers should self-quarantine for 7 days, even if the test is negative. If unvaccinated travelers are not testing, they should self-quarantine for 10 days.

If someone has upcoming travel plans, what kind of information should they be collecting before their departure to help facilitate a safer/healthier trip?
Dr. Nathan: Travelers should research destinations before they go.  Find out what the risk levels and vaccination rates are at your destination.  Consider the availability of healthcare at your destination, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions.  Keep in mind that there are other illnesses out there.  Make sure all your vaccinations are up to date and that you have an extra supply of the medications you normally take.  Finally, have a plan for emergencies, including how you will get home if you become ill and how you will remain at your destination if you need to extend your trip due to a positive COVID-19 test.

Want to Learn MoreOn Call’s clients are encouraged to consult with us for the most up-to-date information on their destinations and recommendations around risk prevention and travel health planning. For everyone else, On Call’s Travel Restart & Location Monitoring Program can provide your organization with comprehensive tools, information, and resources to make informed decisions around traveling in a world with COVID-19. Whether you’re looking for a standard solution to apply to specific locations of interest, or a customized option that includes location monitoring and regular updates, On Call can help you create a travel strategy that is aligned with your organization’s unique needs. Contact us today if you would like to learn more about getting started with On Call’s Travel Restart & Location Monitoring Program or any of our travel risk management and assistance services.


For over 25 years, On Call International has provided fully-customized travel risk management and global assistance services protecting millions of travelers, their families, and their organizations. Contact us today and watch our video to learn more. You can also stay in touch with On Call’s in-house risk management, travel health and security experts by signing up for our quarterly Travel Risk Management (TRM) newsletter.

The information provided within this post has been compiled from a multitude of available sources, and is based on the current news and situational analysis at the time of writing.