The White House will soon lift its ban on travelers from southern African countries, it announced Friday, with the restrictions, imposed in November to curb transmission of the highly infectious omicron variant of coronavirus, widely seen as unnecessary now that the variant has spread throughout the U.S.
The travel restrictions will lift on December 31, White House Assistant Press Secretary Kevin Munoz tweeted Friday.
Munoz said the change was recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and said the temporary ban “gave us time to understand omicron.”
A senior White House official told Reuters, which first reported the travel ban would be lifted, the policy “has served its purpose” and was meant “to reduce the number of cases coming in” rather than keep omicron out entirely.
The ban, which was imposed on November 29, applied to most non-U.S. citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
“The decision was recommended by CDC for two key reasons: First, our nation’s health officials have made progress in understanding Omicron; importantly, our existing vaccines are effective against severe disease with Omicron, especially if you’re boosted,” a White House official told CNN Friday. “Second, with Omicron now present across the US and globally, international travelers from these countries will not have a significant impact on US cases.”
73%. That’s the percentage of new Covid-19 cases in the U.S. last week that were linked to the omicron variant, according to the CDC, up from 3% the week before.
In addition to the travel restrictions, the White House also changed its international travel protocols in December to require all inbound international visitors to the U.S. to have a negative Covid-19 test result within 24 hours of their flight.
The U.S. was one of a slew of countries to quickly impose travel restrictions after the omicron variant was first detected in southern Africa in late November, even as dozens of nations soon identified their own cases of the new strain. The travel policies had come under criticism by many, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres likening them to “travel apartheid.” President Joe Biden defended the U.S.’s decision to keep out travelers, however, saying in an address in November the policy would not prevent omicron from entering the U.S., but it “gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker.” The travel ban is so far still the only major restriction the federal government has imposed to combat the spread of omicron; though the White House has pledged to ramp up testing, vaccinations and expand hospital capacity, Biden has said he wouldn’t advocate for lockdowns or other domestic restrictions due to the highly transmissible new strain.