Don’t Expect Joe Biden’s Travel Ban To Save America From the Omicron Variant
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, belated and strangely selective U.S. restrictions on international travelers created the appearance of doing something without having much of an impact on disease transmission. The Biden administration’s response to the omicron variant has been notably swifter, but it still seems unlikely to work as advertised.
Last Wednesday, the South African government shared information about the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which features mutations that suggest it may be even more contagious than the delta variant. It is still not clear whether that is actually true, whether the new variant is more likely to cause severe symptoms, or whether vaccination is less effective against it than it is against earlier iterations of the virus, either in preventing infection or in preventing hospitalization and death.
Two days after news of the omicron variant broke, President Joe Biden announced a ban on visitors from South Africa and seven other African countries: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. With limited exceptions, noncitizens who were “physically present” in any of those countries during the previous 14 days will be denied entry to the United States and barred from U.S.-bound flights. The suspension will be reevaluated on a monthly basis to determine whether it is still appropriate.
The suspension did not take effect until this morning, which is the first clue that the policy is more symbolic than substantive. The travel ban “won’t even start until Monday, as if the virus takes the weekend off,” New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci noted yesterday. “That’s pandemic theatrics, not public health.”
Biden’s proclamation does not apply to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Legally, that makes sense, since the president is relying on his authority under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which applies to “aliens” whose entry he deems “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” But if spending time in the countries targeted by Biden means someone may have been exposed to the omicron variant, that risk does not disappear simply because a potential carrier is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. And if the risk can be managed through measures short of barring entry—such as testing and, where appropriate, isolation—why not apply those safeguards uniformly?
While existing PCR tests can distinguish between omicron and other variants, Biden’s proclamation does not explicitly address screening of travelers, although it says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “shall implement other mitigation measures for travelers” departing for the U.S. from the eight specified countries “as needed.” Under current regulations, U.S.-bound travelers who are not fully vaccinated must present a negative result from a viral test on a sample taken no more than a day before they travel. For fully vaccinated travelers, the sample can be taken up to three days before departure.
The geographic scope of Biden’s proclamation is also questionable, since COVID-19 cases involving the omicron variant have been identified in many other places, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denm
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