US to undo Trump's order and impose Covid-19 travel restrictions on South Africa, UK and Brazil to fight new strains
President Joe Biden will reinstate coronavirus travel restrictions on non-US citizens who have been in the UK, Brazil, Ireland, and 26 countries in Europe. The ban will also be extended to most non-US citizens if they have been in South Africa recently. The measures are being taken in an attempt to curb the spread of new Covid-19 variants that have emerged in the UK, Brazil and South Africa, which are believed to be more infectious.
“We are adding South Africa to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond South Africa. (The agency) was putting in place this suite of measures to protect Americans and also to reduce the risk of these variants spreading and worsening the current pandemic,” Dr Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Reuters.
The executive order that will keep in place the travel restrictions is expected to be signed by Biden on Monday, January 25. This will reverse the January 18 order by former President Donald Trump who had decided to lift the ban on travelers from Europe and Brazil before his term ended. Trump’s directive would have come into effect on January 26.
“I agree with the secretary that this action is the best way to continue protecting Americans from Covid-19 while enabling travel to resume safely," Trump wrote in the proclamation, referring to then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.
Hours after Trump’s announcement, however, the Biden transition team promised that the new administration would not lift the restrictions. “With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel. On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of Covid-19,” then-incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki had tweeted.
With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel.— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) January 19, 2021
On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) January 19, 2021
What are the new variants?
Multiple Covid-19 variants are circulating globally. In the UK, a new variant called B.1.1.7 has emerged with an unusually large number of mutations. This variant was first detected in September 2020 and is now highly prevalent in London and southeast England. It has since been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the US and Canada.
In South Africa, another variant called 1.351 has emerged independently of the one detected in the UK. This strain, originally detected in early October, shares some mutations with the variant detected in the UK. There have been cases caused by this variant outside of South Africa, but it has not been identified yet in the US.
In Brazil, a variant called P.1 emerged and was identified in four travelers from Brazil, who were tested during routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies. This variant has not been detected in the US.
According to scientists, all these variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of the coronavirus. A recent report by the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Viruses Advisory Group (NERVTAG) also suggested “there is a realistic possibility that VOC B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death compared to non-VOC viruses".
The CDC recommends rigorous and increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies such as vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, isolation and quarantine, to limit the spread of the coronavirus, including the new strains.
Covid-19 testing a must for US entry
The CDC has already announced that effective January 26, it will require all air passengers entering the US (including US citizens and legal permanent residents) to present a negative coronavirus test, taken within three calendar days of departure or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days.
Airlines must confirm the negative test result or proof of recovery for all passengers, two years of age and over, before boarding. Airlines have been asked to deny boarding of passengers who do not provide documentation of a negative test or recovery.
“On January 12, 2021, CDC issued an order requiring all air passengers arriving to the US from a foreign country to get tested no more than 3 days before their flight departs and to present the negative result or documentation of having recovered from Covid-19 to the airline before boarding the flight. Air passengers will also be required to confirm that the information they present is true in the form of an attestation. This order is effective as of 12:01 am EST (5:01am GMT) on January 26, 2021,” said a statement.
Meanwhile, Biden recently signed an executive order instructing applicable agencies to take immediate action to require mask-wearing on many airplanes, trains and certain other forms of public transportation in the US.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, noted that CDC will sign a separate order on Monday requiring masks on all airplanes, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-share vehicles for all travelers two and older, officials said. The new requirements will be effective in the coming days, and masks can be removed for brief periods while eating or drinking.