WASHINGTON – The United States will lift travel restrictions on eight South African countries it imposed to try to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 variant Omicron, the White House announced on Friday.
This variant was first discovered by scientists in South Africa, then has spread around the world.
The World Health Organization and leaders in southern Africa have criticized the travel ban as ineffective and unfairly damaging local economies.
The November 29 ban banned nearly all non-US citizens who had recently been in South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Restrictions will be lifted on New Year’s Eve.
White House spokesman Kevin Munoz said on Twitter that the decision was recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Munoz said the temporary travel ban gives scientists the time needed to study the new virus variant and conclude that current vaccinations are effective in minimizing its impact.
Omicron is now spreading rapidly throughout the United States, including among vaccinated people, but the majority of people hospitalized are unvaccinated.
“The restrictions have given us time to understand Omicron and we know our existing vaccine works against Omicron especially,” Munoz tweeted.
Much of the Omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown; Scientists say Omicron spreads even more easily than other strains of coronavirus, including Delta.
The US government reports that 73% of new infections nationwide are from the Omicron variant.
But while breakthrough infections in vaccinated people have become common, they rarely lead to serious illness or hospitalization.
Omicron’s rapid growth, coupled with more people congregating indoors during the winter, has led to a large wave of infections.
According to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day average for US COVID-19 cases rose to 160,000 this week. This is more than double the average at the end of November.
The rapid spread of this new variant has not yet overwhelmed most hospital systems in the country, but it has attracted the attention of businesses, sports leagues and Christmas travel plans across the country. across the country.
Many NBA and NFL games have been rescheduled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the Hawaii Bowl, scheduled for Friday, was canceled entirely after Hawaii was forced to withdraw.
Three major airlines have canceled dozens of domestic and international flights citing staff shortages.