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Experts Warn Omicron Covid Variant Is A ‘Reason To Be Worried’

The Omicron Covid-19 variant was first detected in South Africa, and has now spread to 14 countries, with some experts claiming the variant has already reached the US. Scientists are working to figure out how much more dangerous and contagious the new variant is when compared to other variants, especially as international governments race to ease travel restrictions. 

The US has been imposing travel restrictions on travelers from South Africa since Monday, as well as other countries around the region. The variant has already been confirmed in Canada, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, discussed the variant on the news recently. 

“The new variant is likely already in the United States, but the government is better positioned to detect cases of the new strain than it was a year ago.”

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As of this week, most travelers from southern Africa are barred from entering the United States, and restrictions have been renewed for all travel from southern Africa to most European countries. Within 36 hours of discovering the new strain, scientists in South Africa alerted the world and began testing current vaccines against the strain immediately. Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed the increased risk for unvaccinated Americans when it comes to any variant. 

“The US certainly has the potential to go into a fifth wave of high infections if enough people don’t come forward for vaccination and booster shots.”

South Africa’s government and president, however, are worried that the region is being unjustly blamed for the new variant, when the reality is these variants only have the opportunity to develop due to uneven distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines throughout the world. 

“We want all travel bans to be reversed, as they have no basis in science. These restrictions are completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country,” South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said. 

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“I think there’s good reason to be worried. I don’t think that means that we’re powerless, answers are coming. We need to collect data. We need to investigate and understand this variant,” said Professor Anne Van Gottberg of South Africa’s Institute for Communicable Diseases.

“We should be doing the things that we know work when you’re dealing with a pandemic virus. It’s not the time to panic. We should be concerned, and our concern should spur us to do the things that we know work,” Dr. Fauci said.

Fauci explained that “the concern over the new variant comes from the number and type of mutations found around the spike protein, the part of the virus molecule that allows it to attach itself to human cells. The high number of mutations and where they were found suggests that this would be more transmissible, and also suggests that it might evade some of the immune parameters that we have, such as antibody and plasma treatments, and the current vaccines.”

“It appears to be spreading very readily and has a transmission advantage. One of the key things we don’t know right now is whether the new variant causes more severe COVID-19 symptoms than previous strains.”

Omicron currently accounts for more than 2,000 new daily cases in South Africa. One expert in the nation is worried that the daily infection rate could triple within the next week alone. 

“I am expecting we will top over 10,000 cases by the end of the week per day,” Dr Salim Abdool Karim said during an online press briefing by the Health Ministry.

Travel Ban

US Lifts Pandemic Travel Ban For International Visitors 

This Monday the US lifted restrictions on travel from a long list of countries which will allow tourists to make long-delayed trips and reconnect with their family members living in the states, more than a year and a half since the pandemic began. Some of the countries included on the list are Mexico, Canada, and most of Europe. 

The US is now accepting fully vaccinated travelers at airports and land borders, fully removing all Covid-19 restrictions initially imposed during the last presidential administration. 

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The new guidelines allow air travel from previously restricted countries as long as the individual has proof of vaccination in addition to a negative Covid test. If an individual is traveling into the US by land, from Mexico or Canada, they’ll just need proof of vaccination, but no negative test. 

Airlines in general are preparing for an influx of travelers from Europe specifically as well. Data from Cirium, a travel and analytics firm, shows that airlines are increasing flights between the United Kingdom and the US by 21% this month. 

The new guidelines will also likely impact the Mexico-US and Canada-US borders tremendously, as traveling back and forth between all three countries was a normalized means of travel pre-pandemic. 

These new guidelines will also ideally help improve local and state economies on the border. Malls, restaurants, and retail establishments in general have been devastated economically by the lack of visitors from Mexico and Canada. 

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There’s also a lot of personal motivation from Americans that have motivated officials to reopen the borders. So many families in the US were forced to stay away from their families due to pandemic restrictions and how far away they live.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “the U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the vaccines approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That means that the AstraZeneca vaccine, widely used in Canada, will be accepted.”

Airlines will require air travelers to verify their vaccine records and match them against their ID, and if they don’t, they could face up to nearly $35,000 in fines for every violation. Airlines will also be collecting information about passengers for contact tracing purposes.

CDC workers will be spot-checking travelers for compliance in the US as well. At land borders, Customs and Border Protection agents will be checking proof of vaccines, to ensure everyone’s information is legitimate. 

U.S. Opens Mexican, Canadian Land Borders To Fully Vaccinated People

After over a year and five months of heavily restricted travel, the United States will begin easing bans by allowing fully vaccinated, nonessential travelers to cross into the country over the Mexican and Canadian land borders.

Details of the new policy were previewed to a number of reporters by senior administration officials, who chose to remain anonymous. The officials gave comments on the opening, saying that the vaccination requirements will ensure safety during travels.

“This is an important step that will further enhance the safety of international travel and the safety of Americans at home. These new vaccination requirements deploy the best tool we have in our arsenal to keep people safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Officials explained that the easing of nonessential traveling across borders will begin in early November, although a date was not specified. Unvaccinated persons can only enter if they have essential purposes.

The second phase of the rules will begin in early January 2022, which will see all travelers, whether essential or nonessential, require vaccinations in order to enter the country.

According to officials, the period between November and January should “provide ample time for essential travelers such as truckers and others to get vaccinated, enabling a smooth transition to this new system.”

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While the current travel restrictions end on Oct. 21 as USA Today points out, there will be a new restriction placed leading up until the day in November that phase one begins.

While it isn’t know what vaccines will be permitted at the border crossings, USA Today gave a list of vaccines that are either U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or World Health Organization (WHO) approved, which include Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Sinovac, and Sinopharm.

These new travel rules also only apply to legal travelers. Illegal travelers who attempt to enter into the country will still be in violation of Title 42, which allows the U.S. to expel immigrants without allowing them a chance for asylum.

While the Trump Administration came under scrutiny for their use of Title 42, the Biden Administration has also enforced the law as recently as late September when thousands of Haitians congregated at the Texas border.

Officials explained that travelers via vehicle, rail, and boat will be asked by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for their vaccination status, along with other typically needed admission documents. Officials also stated that COVID-19 testing will not be required for vehicle, sea, or rail assuming the passengers have their vaccination.

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The timing of these new protocols were likely influenced by the surrounding countries’ vaccine statuses. One official explained that both Mexico and Canada have high vaccination rates, as well as vaccine availability. Additionally, the official discussed about having both air and land travel approaches be “consistent.”

Right now, 38% of the total population in Mexico is vaccinated, while 52% have had at least one dose. Meanwhile, 72% of Canada’s population have reached full vaccination, while 77% have received at least one dose.

As CNN notes, the U.S. had been extending the restrictions on Canadian and Mexican border travel on a monthly basis since the pandemic accelerated back in March of 2020. Canada had previously announced that vaccinated U.S. citizens would be able to enter the country in early August. However, the U.S. remained noncommittal about border restrictions at that time.

Ironically, despite the United States’ reservations regarding opening Canadian borders to nonessentials, America currently has a lower overall fully vaccinated rate (57%).

Travelers from Mexico and Canada won’t be the only foreigners impacted by new protocols. Yahoo! Finance reported that starting in November, all international travelers must be fully vaccinated and provide a negative COVID-19 test three days before a U.S.-bound flight. Additionally, unvaccinated Americans flying abroad will face stricter requirements.

Australia’s Prime Minister Says International Travelers Won’t Be Welcome Until At Least 2022

Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined plans for lifting some of Australia’s toughest Covid-19 this week. Part of this outline stated that foreign tourists won’t be welcomed back until at least 2022. The country will instead be prioritizing the return of skilled migrants and students by reopening external borders when they reach a certain rate of vaccination.  

Morrison’s benchmark for reopening will be once 80% of the population aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated. He also announced plans to allow vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents to fly overseas in November; citizens haven’t been able to leave since March 2020. 

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Australia has been reporting the lowest level of immigration since World War II due to these strict travel restrictions. Australian universities and businesses have been struggling to cope with the lack of international students and tourists who typically support these institutions financially. 

Australia’s travel restrictions, however, has allowed life to return to a fairly normal place due to the lack of infection. As of right now some of its biggest cities, like Sydney and Melbourne, are currently experiencing shutdowns due to minor outbreaks. These shutdowns are what has helped keep Australia’s rate of infection low. 

The difficulty with restricting citizens from international travel is that half of Australia’s population was born overseas, or has at least one immigrant parent. Morrison said the priority will be to get migrants and international students back before tourists, but did not specify when he thinks those groups will be allowed back. 

Before the pandemic, the Australian Tourism Export Council made 33 billion American dollars in a year. That sort of revenue could help Australia’s recovery efforts immensely, which is why the Council is hoping international visitors will be able to return by March. 

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As of right now, however, the lack of specificity in the plan to reopen borders has many workers within Australia’s tourism/travel industry worried. 

“International tourist arrivals have to be part of the plan. Even if they’re not the first priority, we’d like to see how this is going to be worked out. There are many businesses that are just hanging on,” said Daniel Gschwind, chief executive of the Queensland Tourism Industry Council.

Morrison said that the “government would work toward a complete quarantine-free travel for certain countries, such as New Zealand, when it is safe to do so,” but did not give a clear timeline as to when that will happen. Any international travelers that are able to travel into Australia currently must quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. 

Australia is currently battling outbreaks of Covid-19 and its variants while rushing to get as many citizens vaccinated as possible. It’s initial vaccine rollout was slow, but is starting to gain some momentum now.

US To Ease Travel Restrictions For Fully Vaccinated International Visitors

Jeff Zients, White House Covid-19 response coordinator, said the new rules will take effect in November to give agencies and airlines enough time to prepare for the influx of travel that will likely come from these new standards.

Airlines Pushback Reopening Flights Between US And Europe Amid Covid Case Surges 

US borders are currently closed to travelers from the European Union (EU) and the UK, and have been that way for over 500 days now. While there hasn’t been a formal announcement as to when these borders will reopen, airlines are beginning to push back the scheduled restart of their London-New York flights. 

Initially flights were set to resume between the two major cities in September, but now airlines are waiting until November. New outlets in Ireland seemed to allude that the US would be lifting its travel ban in time for Labor Day weekend, however, no official announcements have been made to confirm those reports. 

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The EU is currently discussing whether or not they will reopen their borders to US citizens while the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will be keeping land borders between Mexico and Canada closed until at least September 21st. 

Land border restrictions don’t apply to cross-border trade, US citizens.lawful permanent residents, or individuals traveling for school or medical reasons. Travel into Canada is also now allowed for US citizens who are fully vaccinated. 

Jeff Zients is the White House Covid-19 coordinator who recently held a press briefing regarding the reopening of international borders and US travel in general. 

“The interagency working groups are currently developing a policy process, and we will be ready when it is the right time to consider reopening travel. And that’ll be guided, as always, by science and public health.”

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Travel correspondent Simon Calder claims that “in the past 48 hours I have asked a number of travel industry chief executives about when the current presidential proclamation banning arrivals from the U.K. might be lifted. Their answers and predictions range from ‘September’ to ‘no idea’.”

“The main problem now appears to be two-fold: inertia (once draconian rules are imposed, they can be slow to remove), combined with an unwillingness in Washington DC to complicate the difficult domestic situation at a time when the Delta variant is running wild across America, especially in the key tourism state of Florida.”

Henry Smith, chairman of the all-party Future of Aviation group told the press that “the figures are going in the wrong direction for the U.S. and I don’t really see any appetite in the U.S. to open up sooner rather than later. It is slightly different for the U.S. because they have such a big domestic market, which means international travel makes up a smaller proportion of the industry’s revenues.”

The US currently allows entry to any US citizen and their dependents as well as anyone who has spent 14 days in a country not listed on the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s prohibited list.

Demand For Air Travel Dropping Exponentially As Delta Variant Continues To Spread 

The demand for air travel has begun to plummet as the delta variant of the Covid-19 virus continues to spread rapidly. According to reports from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), cancellations have been on the rise this month alongside less passenger loads and lower air fares. 

TSA reported that 1.7 million people were screened nationwide this Tuesday, the lowest number of air travelers in nearly two months. Southwest Airlines also claimed to see an uptick in cancellations according to their recent financial filings. 

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Southwest is predicting that the surge in cancellations will continue into September should the US not get the virus and its variants more under control. Many major US airlines were looking forward to the coming months due to an overall decrease in cases and spreading of the virus, but the delta variant has them all taking on a new attitude. 

Travel booking site Hopper claimed that the domestic demand for travel hasn’t been this low since after the fourth of July. 

“What we saw was that mid-July was one of our best booking weeks ever, so the domestic bookings were really strong in mid July, but on the domestic front we have seen bookings be pretty flat since then,” Hopper economist Adit Damodarn said.

Damodarn explained how international bookings have been hit even harder due to the increase in spreading and lack of proper vaccine rollout in many international countries. 

“I think there’s a lot going on here that’s making people think twice about traveling. One of the big concerns for people going internationally is the chances of even if you’re vaccinated or getting an infection seem to be going up.”

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“It may not be severe, but it does mean that you might not be able to come back into the U.S. for some time just because of the testing requirement. So with that I think you’re scaring some people off. And then, of course, we have the just general concern about getting sick, going to places where there is more virus,” Founder of crankyflier.com Brett Snyder said. 

Hopper also noted that more fliers have been purchasing “cancel-for-any-reason” flight insurance since the variant began spreading more rapidly in July. 

“The rate in which people are purchasing flight insurance is up about 33% when compared to last month. So I think what we’re seeing here is a little bit of hesitancy.”

Average air booking prices are currently down $76 on average as well. 

“We’re seeing a significant drop in domestic and international airfare. It’s a little bit more than the seasonality that we have seen in prior years, and so that would suggest to us that there’s both the seasonal variation coming off the peak summer travel season, as well as the impact of the delta variant,” Damodarn said.

American Airlines

United Airlines Now Requiring All US Employees To Get Covid-19 Vaccinations 

United Airlines will now require all of its 67,000 US employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19 by October 25th or they will risk termination. This is a first for major US travel agencies that will likely ramp up the pressure for rival services. 

Airlines have mainly been offering incentives for vaccinated employees, like extra pay or time off for being inoculated. Delta Air Lines in May started requiring all new employees show proof of vaccination in order to get hired and United followed suit in June. 

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United’s requirements mark the strictest mandate implemented by a travel service in the US so far. Other companies like Facebook and Walmart have announced that they are requiring all corporate employees to show proof of vaccination before returning to the office. 

 United CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart sent out a note to all employees this Friday detailing why this requirement is so important for the future of the company and air travel in general. 

“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees. But, we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you’re at work, and the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated.”

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The note detailed that United Airlines employees must upload proof that they received either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson’s single dose five weeks after federal officials give them approval, or by October 25th, whichever comes first. 

The mandate will not apply to regional airlines that fly shorter express flights for United. 

About 90% of all pilots and 80% of all flight attendants working for United Airlines claim to already be fully vaccinated, according to company officials. So the mandate is more so for employees working on the ground in the airports who see tens of thousands of flyers every day. 

About 60% of all American Airlines pilots are also vaccinated, according to a letter from the company’s union, the Allied Pilots Association, which has been working to get more employees vaccinated. 

The rise in Covid-19 cases last fall combined with the new highly-contagious Delta variant is motivating travel employees to create new ways to protect themselves from future travel. Time will tell what other agencies will follow United’s lead in terms of vaccination requirements.

England, Scotland, And Northern Ireland Loosen Travel Restrictions For Vaccinated Americans 

Fully vaccinated Americans can now visit England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland without quarantining beginning next week. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps made the announcement on Twitter this week. 

“We’re helping reunite people living in the US and European countries with their family and friends in the UK.” 

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Initially the updated requirements were just for individuals in the US and UK, but Scotland and Northern Ireland said they would also be joining England in waiving their 10-day isolation requirement for fully vaccinated individuals from the European Union and US. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, announced this week that they recommend all US citizens remain in the country and don’t travel to the UK specifically due to rising Covid case numbers in both nations. 

Visitors to England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland will still be subject to Covid testing upon their arrival. Pre-departure testing as well as testing upon arrival will still be enforced, and vaccinated Americans must provide proof of US residency as well as proof of vaccination. 

American travelers must also fill out a patient-tracker form so that authorities are able to contact them should someone they traveled with test positive. Travelers returning to the US must also show a negative Covid result in order to board a US-bound international flight. 

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“Given where we are today … with the delta variant, we will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point for a few reasons. The more transmissible delta variant is spreading both here and around the world.”

“Driven by the delta variant, cases are rising here at home, particularly among those who are unvaccinated and appear likely to continue in the weeks ahead,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a press briefing Monday. 

United Airlines announced that it would have six daily flights between the US and London starting in August. The airline plans to resume additional flights in the coming months as well. 

“Today’s announcement is yet another major milestone in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic with the opening of one of the most important markets from the U.S.” said Patrick Quayle, United’s vice president of international network and alliances, in a news release.

Tori Emerson Barnes, the executive vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association trade group, urged U.S. leaders to “follow the U.K.’s lead and set a timeline to reopen its borders to travelers. We encourage them to start with vaccinated travelers from the U.K., E.U. and Canada. The reality is there’s no difference between a vaccinated American and those vaccinated in the U.K., the E.U. and Canada.”

US Will Not Lift Covid-19 Travel Restrictions Amid Spreading Of Delta-Variant

The United States has no plans to lift any of the existing travel restrictions put in place to protect from the spreading of Covid-19 and its much more contagious Delta variant. 

White House Officials told the media this week that this means the long-running travel restrictions that have barred a lot of the world’s populations from coming into the US will not be lifted anytime soon. 

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“Given where we are today with the Delta variant, the United States will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point. Driven by the Delta variant, cases are rising here, particularly among unvaccinated citizens.”

US airlines and the tourism industry in general has been hoping that this summer could help rebuild what was lost last year when everyone was forced to stay home. Airlines have been lobbying with the White House for the past few months in order to find new and safe ways to get Americans to travel more this summer. 

Currently the US bars any non-US citizen from coming into the country if they have been to the United Kingdom, 26 Schengen nations in Europe without border controls, Ireland, China, India, South Africa, Iran or Brazil within the past 14 days. 

Last week, the US Homeland Security Department claimed that US land borders with Canada and Mexico will also remain closed to non-essential travel until at least August 21st. Canada has said that it would begin allowing fully vaccinated Americans into the country after August 9th. 

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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky said Thursday the “seven-day average of new cases in the United States was up 53% over the previous week. The Delta variant, which was first found in India, now comprises more than 80% of new cases nationwide and has been detected in more than 90 countries.”

“The administration understands the importance of international travel and is united in wanting to reopen international travel in a safe and sustainable manner.”

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Friday said international travel is “something we would all like to see — not just for tourism, but for families to be reunited. However, we rely on public health and medical advice on when we’re going to determine changes to be made.”

The Biden Administration has been in talks with US airlines in recent weeks about how to establish an international contact tracing program for passengers before they lift any restrictions. As of right now the CDC has imposed a mandatory Covid-19 testing rule for nearly all international air travelers.