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Exclusive-U.S. to lift travel curbs on eight African countries


© Reuters. FILEPHOTO: Passengers wait for international flights as Omicron spreads the SARS-CoV-2 variant Omicron. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa. November 28, 2021. REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham/File Photo

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) – The White House announced Friday that the Biden Administration will remove travel restrictions from eight countries in southern Africa last month due to concerns over the rapidly-emerging COVID-19 Omicron variant.

The United States will allow foreign nationals barred for being in the United States due to their previous 14-day stay in any of these eight countries. They can again board U.S. bound flights after 12:01 AM. ET, 31 December 2001. This was confirmed by a senior official.

Nearly all non-U.S. citizens, who were recently in South Africa or Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia in an “abundance” of caution over the South Africa variant that was detected, were banned by the United States as of Nov. 29.

Kevin Munoz, White House spokesperson, tweeted that Biden would lift temporary travel restrictions for Southern Africa countries effective December 31st.

According to him, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended that the decision be made. Munoz said that the restrictions allowed him to better understand Omicron. He also tweeted, “The vaccines we have against Omicron are effective,” Munoz wrote.

Reuters reports that earlier U.S. health officials had suggested lifting travel restrictions due to the fact that they would not have a significant effect on U.S. case loads. This is despite the large current U.S. infection, the confidence that Omicron-specific vaccinations would not be required and the effectiveness of existing booster shots and vaccines.

This travel pause served its purpose. “It bought time to understand science and it allowed time to analyze variant,” said the official who declined to identify himself because the decision was not made public.

Omicron is not being kept away by this. It was obvious that we could not do this. We wanted to decrease the amount of cases that came in, especially in the early days or weeks.

These restrictions did not prevent Americans or flights from leaving southern Africa.

Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease specialist and top doctor said that Monday’s lifting of the restrictions would be likely due to “sufficient infection in our country… We are letting in people from countries that have as many or greater infection levels than those in the south African countries.”

Official stressed that the restrictions were temporary in nature and would be lifted after about one month. This sends “a pretty clear message that there is not going to be any significant penalty” for revealing new variant information.

Only Nov. 8, the United States lifted South Africa’s travel restrictions, which had been in place since February to resolve COVID-19 concerns.

Omicron prompted the United States to tighten testing procedures for international travellers and extend a requirement that travelers wear masks at airports until March 18th.

The CDC tightened the testing requirements for international travelers who arrive in the United States on December 6. They must obtain a positive COVID-19 test within one calendar day.

According to previous rules, international travelers who have been vaccinated could submit a negative result within 3 days from their departure date.

The CDC distributed free COVID-19 home testing kits last week to international travellers at many airports. The CDC recommends that international travelers obtain a COVID-19 testing kit within 3 to 5 days of arrival in the United States.

Last month, the CDC required airlines to release passenger information and names of those who had recently visited eight African countries.

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