Biden lifts Omicron-related travel restrictions on 8 southern African countries

Washington — President Biden signed a proclamation on Tuesday rescinding a previous order that restricted travel from eight countries in southern Africa in the hopes of containing the now-widespread Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The highly contagious strain, which now accounts for the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., was first detected by scientists in South Africa in late November. Mr. Biden quickly restricted travel by non-U.S. citizens from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi in response.

In his proclamation on Tuesday, Mr. Biden said the restrictions “are no longer necessary to protect the public health” and will be lifted after midnight on December 31.

“Having learned more about the Omicron variant in the past several weeks, the CDC now recommends lifting the travel restrictions,” Mr. Biden wrote. “Since I issued that proclamation, our Nation’s health officials, in collaboration with the South African scientists who originally reported the variant, have made substantial progress in understanding the Omicron variant.”

The president pointed to new efforts to screen incoming travelers, including a requirement that all travelers entering the U.S. by air must test negative for COVID-19 within a day of their flight, regardless of vaccination status. The previous window was three days.

The quick spread of the Omicron variant surprised public health officials, and they have stepped up efforts to encourage Americans to get their vaccinations and booster shots, which offer strong protection from the new strain.

Mr. Biden’s decision to restrict travel from southern Africa was called into question by prominent scientists, including from the World Health Organization, who argued the administration was unnecessarily punishing South Africa and other countries for identifying and quickly reporting the emergence of the new variant.

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