THE US Government will lift travel restrictions on Zimbabwe and seven other southern African countries imposed last month over concerns about the fast-spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant, the White House said Friday.
Foreign nationals who are barred from the United States because they have been in one of the eight countries within the prior 14 days will again be allowed on U.S.-bound flights leaving after 12:01 a.m. ET on December 31, a senior official said, according to a Reuters report.
The United States on November 29 barred nearly all non-U.S. citizens who had recently been in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi in an “abundance of caution” over the Omicron variant.
White House spokesman Kevin Munoz tweeted that Biden “will lift the temporary travel restrictions on Southern Africa countries” effective December 31.
He said the decision was recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “The restrictions gave us time to understand Omicron and we know our existing vaccines work against Omicron, especially boosted,” Munoz tweeted.
Reuters reported earlier U.S. public health agencies had recommended lifting the travel restrictions because retaining them would have not a significant impact on U.S. cases given the widespread current U.S. transmission, confidence that an Omicron-specific vaccine would not be necessary and that existing vaccines and booster shots are highly effective.
Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday that lifting the restrictions was likely “because we have enough infection in our own country… We’re letting in people from other countries that have as much or more infection than the southern African countries.”
He emphasized the restrictions were meant to be temporary and lifting them after about a month “sends a pretty clear signal that there’s not going to be a significant penalty” for coming forward to disclose new variant information.
In the wake of Omicron, the United States tightened testing rules for international travellers and extended a requirement to wear masks on airplanes and at airports through March 18.
On December 6, CDC toughened testing rules for international air travelers arriving in the United States, requiring them to obtain a negative COVID-19 test within one day of travel.
Under prior rules, vaccinated international air travellers could present a negative test result obtained within three days of their day of departure.
CDC last week started distributing free COVID-19 home test kits to international travelers at several airports. The CDC encourages – but does not mandate – international air travelers to get a new COVID-19 test three to five days after arriving in the United States.
The CDC last month ordered airlines to disclose passenger names and other information about those who have recently been in the eight southern African countries.