New US travel ban for omicron variant: What it means


Sarah Tew/CNET
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The World Health Organization labeled the omicron coronavirus variant a “variant of concern” on Nov. 24, sparking worries that another new wave of COVID-19 might land in the middle of a travel-filled and close-quartered holiday season. In response to what omicron’s “variant of concern” label means — that it could be more contagious than the highly transmissible delta variant, or that it might make our vaccines less effective against COVID-19 — the US issued a travel ban Monday for eight countries where omicron is circulating. 

“As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” President Joe Biden said on Nov. 26 when he announced the travel ban. “As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises.” On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked airlines carrying passengers into the US from southern Africa to share their names and information with the CDC, so state and local public health agencies could be aware. 

Here’s what we know so far about the travel ban. 

Which countries does the travel ban affect? Which countries have omicron? 

Travel is restricted to and from eight countries in southern Africa where there are cases of COVID-19 fueled by the new variant. South Africa (the country that first reported the new variant to the WHO), Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi are included in the ban. This means residents or travelers from those countries can’t fly into the US if they’ve been in one of the restricted countries within the last 14 days, according to Biden’s proclamation. 

Omicron has been detected in more than 20 countries so far, including Canada, Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. 

If an American is in a country under the travel ban, can they fly back? 

Yes, according to remarks made by Biden on Friday. US citizens and permanent residents may travel home with a negative COVID-19 test.

According to a report by NBC, there are five flights per week between Newark and Johannesburg this week by United Airlines, as well as three United Airlines flights per week between Dulles, in Washington DC, and Accra, Ghana. United will also restart service between Newark and Cape Town on Dec. 1, NBC reported.

On its website, Delta airlines said it currently operates service between Johannesburg and Atlanta three times a week with “no planned adjustments to service at this time.”  

When will the travel ban be lifted? 

It’s unknown right now. When he issued the ban, Biden said he would be “guided by what the science and my medical team advises.”

Do travel bans work?

Some say the US’ travel restrictions are necessary to contain omicron, if not too narrow. Others have criticized the travel restrictions from south African countries, saying they unfairly punish a region that quickly identified a new coronavirus variant and shared the data with the global scientific community. 

“There is very little utility of these kinds of bans,” Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute of Global Health, told NPR, adding that the “horse has probably left the barn.” 

Ultimately, tracking omicron comes down to our ability to detect specific variants. Luckily, COVID-19 cases caused by omicron are easily detected through PCR tests, according to the president’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, but they need to be confirmed through genomic sequencing. Earlier this year, the CDC was sequencing about 8,000 samples in the US per week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing Tuesday. Now the CDC is testing about 80,000 samples per week, she said — about one in seven samples which test positive for COVID-19.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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