Americans warned against travel as COVID-19 variants spread and testing rules go into effect

The State Department warned Americans to strongly reconsider travel Tuesday as a new COVID-19 testing requirement went into effect and new variants of the virus were detected in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“If you’re overseas right now, it could be harder to come home for a while,” said Ian Brownlee, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for consular affairs. “Everyone needs to be prepared to be potentially seriously disrupted in their trip.”

Brownlee’s warning came on the first day of the U.S.’s new testing requirement for inbound travelers overseas. All airline passengers, regardless of citizenship, must now present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of travel or show proof that they have recovered from the deadly virus. Anyone failing to do either will be denied boarding by the airlines and will be responsible for any additional lodging costs.

While U.S. embassies overseas can help U.S. citizens with information and possibly a loan to help them return home, Brownlee said they do not have the ability to provide COVID-19 testing for those seeking to return.

“The bottom line message is: This is really not the time for people to be engaging in discretionary travel and that all travel should be postponed until we get a better handle on getting this virus under control, and accelerating our vaccination strategies,” he said.

The new measure is part of an executive order issued by the Biden administration to tighten COVID-19 restrictions with the hope of slowing down the spread of several highly contagious variants of the disease that are now spreading in the region.

At least 15 countries and territories in the Americas, including the United States, have confirmed the presence of at least one of three emerging variants: Those first identified in southeast England, South Africa or Brazil.

The new variants are proving to be very difficult and their emergence highlights the challenges U.S. health officials are facing in the race to vaccinate as many people as they can against infections, said Dr. Marty Cetron, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s global migration and quarantine division.

“They all suggest that they are potentially more contagious than the current circulating predominate virus. They can quickly become the predominant virus that’s circulating and several of them have presented challenges in …evading some of the natural immunity and challenges toward looking at our vaccine solutions,” he said.

The Pan American Health Organization confirmed the spread of one of the highly contagious mutated strains of the virus to 14 countries Tuesday. That list grew hours later when the Cayman Islands, a British dependent territory 433 miles south of Miami, reported that the U.K. variant had also been detected in three recent travelers arriving from Barbados and Britain.

“It is not surprising that we now have confirmation of this variant in the Cayman Islands, as we know it to be virulent and widespread,” Cayman’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee said.

Cayman was notified of the strain by the Caribbean Public Health Agency, the Trinidad-based public health agency conducting COVID-19 testing for a number of countries and territories in the region. The agency has been asking its members to send in selections of positive COVID-19 samples for genetic sequencing.

So far, Caribbean health experts have discovered the U.K. variant in Cayman Islands, St. Lucia, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Separately Cuba, according to PAHO, has reported the presence of the South African strain while the Dominican Republic has confirmed the presence of the U.K. variant.

On Tuesday, the U.S. surpassed 25 million reported cases of COVID-19 and over 400,000 deaths, the CDC said, making the variants even more of a threat. The CDC made a last-minute decision to eliminate a two-week waiver for airlines flying to countries where it will be difficult for passengers returning to the U.S. to comply with the new testing rule.

“This virus is a formidable foe,” Cetron said. “We have to be prepared to be very flexible in response to this virus and adapt our strategies quickly.”

Cetron said the new variants have the ability to spread asymptomatically and pre-symptomatically, characteristics that have been fueling the pandemic. Also worrying is the speed at which the virus can move through a population and grow exponentially, its reproductive rate and the evolution of the virus in forming mutations that have the potential to become more contagious, and potentially more serious.

For example, in the case of the strain that emerged in Manaus, Brazil, there is a high probability of reinfection. While the population had recovered from an initial large wave of infections, it was later revealed that the mutation caused a number of reinfections and a second uptick in cases. This variant has been reported in Japan after it was first identified in Brazil in December.

“We’re really in a race between a really formidable virus and our human ability to control transmission and bring our best tools to the table in the form of vaccinations. So we have the variant versus the vaccines, and we have the infection in general in and of itself, versus our ability to fight this.”

Since Tuesday, airlines have been tasked with confirming that passengers traveling to the U.S. have been tested within the previous three days, in accordance with the new order.

A spokesperson for American Airlines said Tuesday afternoon that the company’s Latin American and Caribbean operations were running smoothly, and that there were no major issues to report.

U.S. officials said they have been fielding calls from airlines and so far the issues that have come up are things that were anticipated and are being worked out. There are over 100 countries that have testing requirements for either exit or entry to control the global pandemic, the CDC said.

The new testing requirement does not apply to individuals flying from the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.

At the Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, however, chaos did erupt and police had to be called, said a physician, Dr. Vincent DeGennaro, who was traveling back to the U.S. Tuesday. DeGennaro said several passengers who got tested at his facility, Innovating Health International, which is among several on a U.S. embassy list, were denied boarding by airline agents when they checked in for their flight.

The airlines told the travelers that the tests were invalid because DeGennaro’s facility is not among the five on a list released by Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP).

“Why does the MSPP list matter?” said DeGennaro, who also got tested at his facility and faced no problems boarding a JetBlue flight to Fort Lauderdale. “These are American visa holders on U.S. private companies being screened for a U.S. policy they are going to need to enforce on the U.S. side of the border.”

DeGennaro said he spent the afternoon emailing, tweeting and calling all of the major U.S. carriers flying to Haiti, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. No one responded. He said another colleague traveling Tuesday told him he saw dozens of U.S. bound passengers denied due to the testing requirement.

American Airlines spokeswoman Laura Masvidal declined to comment on whether there had been any significant reduction in the number of people boarding flights. She acknowledged that some passengers arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport without proof of negative results and were moved to a later flight after showing the necessary documentation.

Spirit Airlines said while most of its U.S.-bound passengers flying out of the region Tuesday showed up with the proper documentation, some had to be turned away after presenting antibody tests. The CDC is requiring PCR COVID-19 tests or rapid antigen tests.

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