Most of the world is back in full panic mode over the emergence of the new Omicron variant and Fauci’s predictions about it spreading quickly appear to be coming true. Some cases have now been reported in Australia. Closer to home, two cases were identified in Canada yesterday, with both people having recently returned from South Africa. So what does the Biden administration plan to do about it? Will we be testing all new arrivals for that specific variant? Apparently not. And while a travel ban from Africa was announced quickly, it didn’t even go into effect until today. Even then, it’s not a full ban because all American citizens and lawful residents will be allowed to travel from Africa, including the unvaccinated, provided they have a recent negative test. In a moment we’ll see why that may prove to be an issue. (Reuters)
U.S. health officials have not imposed any new screening or tracing requirements in response to the newly discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant that prompted the Biden administration to restrict travel from southern Africa.
Starting Monday, the United States will bar most foreign travelers from South Africa and seven other southern African countries in an attempt to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa on Friday.
However, the travel restrictions do not ban flights or apply to U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents. Until the ban starts at 12:01 ET Monday, flights from South Africa have continued to carry foreign nationals.
Politics and reality rarely sleep comfortably in the same bed, but we can pretend for the moment that the Omicron variant isn’t already in the United States. If it somehow hasn’t found its way here and we are later swamped with a tidal wave of Omicron cases, you will be able to point back to this moment in time. While everyone else was already shutting down travel from southern Africa and other locations, America sat on its hands with regularly scheduled flights from that region coming in at various airports, mostly along the east coast. Tests for the new variant are already in production, but there seems to have been no sense of urgency in terms of making them mandatory for travelers.
With that bookmark safely established, we can switch from politics to reality. While one hates to quote Anthony Fauci about anything these days, he was probably correct this weekend when he said that Omicron was likely already here. We just haven’t nailed down a positive test result yet.
Keeping that in mind, let’s return to those flight restrictions I alluded to earlier. It’s unclear if there’s really any point in setting up specific Omicron testing for incoming travelers because of the way that we’re handling it. Vaccinated travelers will have to provide a negative test taken in the previous three days. Unvaccinated travelers will be allowed to enter with a test taken within 24 hours. No repeat testing is required upon arrival.
Now consider what happened on two Air France flights into the Netherlands from South Africa on Friday. Everyone on board had shown either proof of vaccination or a negative test. Out of roughly 600 passengers on the two planes, 61 of them (roughly ten percent) tested positive upon arrival and 13 of them wound up having the Omicron variant.
Two flights from South Africa that landed in the Netherlands Friday had 13 passengers with the Omicron variant on board, Dutch authorities said Sunday, and cases are being discovered in countries around the world.
The Netherlands Omicron cases were among 61 who tested positive for COVID-19 out of about 600 passengers on the two flights.
A spokesperson for KLM, the Dutch arm of Air France (AIRF.PA), said the passengers on the flight had either tested negative or shown proof of vaccination before getting on planes in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
There are several possible explanations for this but none of them should bring us much comfort. Given how ludicrously easy it is to fake a vax card or buy a negative test result online, some of the people on the planes may have boarded fraudulently. Some may have been in contact with an infected person shortly before being tested and they hadn’t built up a sufficient viral load to trigger the test. No matter which, the end result is the same. Infected people are able to travel under the current restrictions and the measures being taken are obviously not sufficient to stop them all. And it only takes one case to sneak through the gates before we’re off to the COVID races again.
But how worried should we really be? Perhaps the CDC is taking this rather laissez-faire approach because Omicron simply isn’t that big of a cause for concern. The health expert in South Africa who initially discovered the new variant has told us that all of the cases of Omicron they’ve seen thus far have presented “mild” symptoms not resulting in hospitalization or death. If that holds true for everyone, this could actually turn out to be a net positive, as Allahpundit pointed out over the weekend. But as he also noted, the South African population tends to be much younger on average. If Omicron starts wiping out the entire populations of some nursing homes in the United States, then we’re back to the same panic mode that Delta created.
In other words, you can either join the crowd that’s taking reactionary, panicky measures or you can get on with your life and wait for the next wave to pass. At this point, we should all be able to conclude that Omicron won’t be the last one, and the WHO should probably prepare a backup list of names for variants. They’ve only got nine greek letters left as of today.