As of one minute after midnight Monday, the United States has banned all foreigner travelers coming from southern Africa, but until now has done next to nothing to find cases that might already be coming into the country, according to Reuters. Even though President Joe Biden announced Monday’s new restrictions on Friday, health officials did not mandate any new screening or tracing measures tied to the super-mutated Omicron variant for travelers scrambling to get in before today’s deadline.
The U.S. does require all airline passengers coming from outside the country to provide proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test, but so did the Netherlands—whose health officials then found 61 positive cases, of which 13 turned out to be Omicron, upon testing all 600 passengers aboard two flights from South Africa on Friday. The U.S. does not require any incoming passengers to be tested on arrival.
That might not bode well for the spread of Omicron, which may or may not be as bad as panic-mongers predict. The World Health Organization on Monday issued a warning to prepare for the worst, but at the same time lambasted countries for closing off southern Africa.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said in a statement. “The overall global risk related to the new variant... is assessed as very high.”
Yet a day earlier, the WHO seemed to send mixed messaging in criticizing countries for travel bans that will undoubtedly be harsh on economies in Africa. “Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: Our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores,” the WHO tweeted.
"We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more:
-severe #COVID19 disease
-risk of reinfections
-risk of evading vaccines.
Scientists at WHO & around the 🌍 are working urgently to answer these questions"-@DrTedros #WHASpecial https://t.co/FDFXHLYyfn
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 29, 2021
At the same time, the organization head admitted that so little is known about this potentially horrific variant. “We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more: transmission, severe #COVID19, disease, risk of reinfections, risk of evading vaccines,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday. “Scientists at WHO and around the world are working urgently to answer these questions.”
To date, no deaths have been reported as a result of the Omicron variant.
And while those questions are being answered, new cases continue to pop up. Portugal health authorities announced Monday that they found 13 Omicron variant cases in a soccer club in Lisbon after one of the players took a recent trip to South Africa. They did not say if the club did regular testing or if the players affected are vaccinated.
Two of the people forced into quarantine in Amsterdam who tested positive for COVID-19 from the KLM flights from South Africa were arrested after they made a daring escape from their quarantine hotel. They were taken into custody after boarding a flight to Spain. Their Spanish vaccine certificates were all they needed to book a flight despite being found to have tested positive by Dutch health authorities. It is unknown if they had the Omicron variant.
Around the world, cases continue to pop up, from Canada to Hong Kong. No cases have yet been reported in the U.S., but it is almost certain there will be, especially given the fact that no additional tests were put in place from the dozens of flights that landed before the ban on Monday.