The United States government is looking at beefing up its COVID-19 testing procedures for travellers in response to the newly-discovered Omicron variant, various news outlets are reporting.
The new measures being considered are for all travellers entering the U.S. to be tested for COVID-19 one day before their flight and having all travellers, including American citizens and permanent residents, be tested again within three to five days of returning home, regardless of their vaccination status.
The information came from unnamed sources “familiar with the discussions,” CNN reports, and no official decisions have been made just yet.
The U.S. currently requires pre-departure COVID-19 testing (PCR or antigen) for both vaccine and unvaccinated air travellers entering the country.
Travellers who show proof of full vaccination must show a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days before their flight departure.
The revised policy that’s reportedly being looked at would shorten that timeline.
U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to share details on Thursday (Dec. 2) as part of an enhanced COVID-19 strategy for winter.
According to the Washington Post, officials are also debating a proposal to require all travellers, including U.S. citizens, to self-quarantine for seven days, even if their test results are negative.
Those who disobey the rules could face fines and penalties, which is the first time such penalties would be linked to testing and quarantine measures for travellers in the United States, the news outlet pointed out.
President Biden said Monday that he was not advising further restrictions on businesses or in-person gatherings to combat the pandemic amid concerns about Omicron.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is revising its testing requirements for travellers as more cases of the Omicron variant pop up around the globe.
"A revised order would shorten the timeline for required testing for all international air travelers to one day before departure to the United States," a CDC spokesman told CNN. "This strengthens already robust protocols in place for international travel, including requirements for foreign travellers to be fully vaccinated."
Again: it is not 100 per cent clear when this new policy would take effect. However, Reuters is reporting that air travellers flying to the U.S. will face tougher testing rules starting Wednesday (Dec. 1).
The U.S., Canada, UK and EU and US are among those who have imposed travel bans on countries in South Africa, where B.1.1.529, named Omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO), was first discovered.
While South African scientists were first to flag the potentially dangerous COVID-19 variant, researchers believe Omicron was already spreading in western Europe before the first cases were identified.
More research on the new variant is needed, but the WHO says “the overall risk related to Omicron is considered very high for a number of reasons.”
"There is concerning preliminary evidence on Omicron suggesting, in contrast to previous [variants of concern], both potential immune escape and higher transmissibility that could lead to further surges with severe consequences,” the organization said.
Canada, on Tuesday (Nov. 30), imposed new travel restrictions on southern African countries in response to the new variant.
Soon, all fully vaccinated air travellers entering Canada from points other than the United States will be subject to new arrival testing procedures.
Travellers will be required to isolate while they await the results of their on-arrival test.
This test, which will be paid for by the federal government, is in addition to the 72-hour pre-departure test that travellers must complete before arriving in Canada, Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos told media on Tuesday.
The new requirement is set to come into effect “over the next few days,” said Minister Duclos, adding that Canada is preparing for a “possible extension” of the policy to include the United States and the land borders as the health situation evolves.
In a statement, the WHO says "blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” while advising those unwell, at risk or 60 years and over and unvaccinated to postpone travel.