The emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID has had officials scrambling to decide the best approaches to combat what they fear could be worse than the Delta strain, even though, so far, there have been no cases with severe symptoms or hospitalizations. Now that the U.S. has confirmed cases, the White House may be considering clamping down on domestic travel – in other words, the unvaccinated would not be able to travel to the other U.S. states via public transportation.
During a press briefing on Thursday, Dec. 2, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki suggested restricting travel for U.S. citizens could be considered: “I would say that nothing is off the table, so, including domestic travel,” she said. Omicron has already been detected in 25 countries. The new strain of COVID was discovered in southern Africa and the U.S. recorded its first case recently in San Francisco, California. A second case was found in Minnesota and, as of Nov. 3, nine cases have been reported in five states. In both of the first two cases, the patients had been fully vaccinated. Omicron infection has been detected in Colorado and Hawaii, and at least five people tested positive for the virus in New York.
Even while President Joe Biden faces battles in the courts over his vaccine mandates, the commander-in-chief is stepping up his restrictive orders. The mask mandate on public transportation was set to expire on Jan. 18, 2022, but the president extended that until March 18. Mr. Biden has already restricted travel from South Africa and other countries deemed to be high-risk, and he requires that anyone entering the U.S. show a negative COVID test within the previous 24 hours.
“We base our decisions on the advice of the health and medical experts,” Psaki said, explaining that officials are looking at “a range of factors as we make decisions about what steps we can put in place.” She added, “Again, nothing’s off the table.”
Omicron, though it has thus far led to no serious illnesses, is thought to be even more contagious than the Delta variant and is infecting people of all ages. There is also evidence that having had COVID before is no protection from this newest strain. South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases wrote in an unpublished report that “Population-level evidence suggests that the Omicron variant is associated with substantial ability to evade immunity from prior infection.”
During an online briefing, the World Health Organization’s regional office for Africa said going by just South Africa’s numbers, about 40% of the population has had COVID and about 30% has been vaccinated, but the new numbers are growing rapidly. “We believe that previous infection does not provide them protection from infection due to Omicron,” said microbiologist Anne von Gottberg.
The patient from Minnesota never left the United States. According to reports, the adult male had been fully vaccinated and had recently received the booster shot. The Minnesota Department of Health said the man had traveled to New York City on Nov. 19-21 to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Javits Center. Officials at the venue said visitors are required to show proof of vaccination as well as to wear masks while inside.
The idea of closing domestic travel to the unvaccinated is raising a lot of frustration and concern – especially since it is in response to a virus that has seen no serious symptoms or hospitalizations. For now, extending mask mandates and doubling fines on public transportation are the newest restrictions, but further constraints are not yet “off the table.”
~ Read more from Kelli Ballard.