The Washington Post

Biden to ratchet up covid posture

TOUGHER TESTING FOR FLIERS TO U.S.

- BY LENA H. SUN AND TYLER PAGER

Self-quarantini­ng rule also being considered

The Biden administra­tion is preparing stricter testing requiremen­ts for all travelers entering the United States, including returning Americans, to curb the spread of the potentiall­y dangerous omicron variant, according to three federal health officials.

As part of an enhanced winter covid strategy Biden is expected to announce Thursday, U.S. officials would require everyone entering the country to be tested one day before boarding flights, regardless of their vaccinatio­n status or country of departure. Administra­tion officials are also considerin­g a requiremen­t that all travelers get retested within three to five days of arrival.

In addition, they are debating a controvers­ial proposal to require all travelers, including U.S. citizens, to self-quarantine for seven days, even if their test results are negative. Those who flout the requiremen­ts might be subject to fines and penalties, the first time such penalties would be linked to testing and quarantine measures for travelers in the United States.

The two testing measures are detailed in a draft public health order written by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

that is under review by officials at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the White House. The self-quarantine-related measures are not in that draft but could be added later if the proposals win broader sign-off, said the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the order has not been finalized.

Since Thursday, administra­tion officials have held multiple calls to chart a response to contain the new variant, which has a panoply of worrisome new mutations that may make it more transmissi­ble, according to a senior administra­tion official involved in the talks. Like a number of other nations, the United States immediatel­y restricted travel from several southern African nations where the variant was first reported. But in recent days, since omicron has been identified in at least 19 countries spanning the globe, U.S. officials, among others, are considerin­g additional precaution­s given that it may be several weeks before scientists are able to say whether the variant might be able to evade current vaccines and treatments.

Currently, the United States requires pre-departure coronaviru­s testing for both unvaccinat­ed and vaccinated air travelers to the country. For those who show proof of full vaccinatio­n, that test must be conducted no more than three days before the flight’s departure. For someone who cannot show such proof, the test must be done no more than one day before departure. The new policy would require everyone to be tested one day before departure.

In a statement issued late Tuesday night, the CDC said it is working to shorten the timeline for required testing for all internatio­nal air travelers to one day before departure to the United States. The agency currently recommends travelers get an additional coronaviru­s test three to five days after arrival and that unvaccinat­ed travelers quarantine for a minimum of seven days.

Other key details were still being ironed out Tuesday. It’s not clear when the new policy would take effect. But given the urgency of limiting the spread of what might be a highly transmissi­ble variant, speed is essential. It’s possible the policy could take effect in a week or two, according to one official.

During a White House covid briefing Tuesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency was considerin­g a range of measures to protect Americans, including evaluating “how to make internatio­nal travel as safe as possible, including pre-departure testing closer to the time of flight, and considerat­ions around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantine­s.”

Celine Gounder, an epidemiolo­gist and infectious-diseases specialist who advised the Biden administra­tion’s transition team on the covid-19 response, applauded stricter testing. “If it were up to me, to fly, you should be fully vaccinated and we should also be testing 24 hours prior” to flight, she said.

Under the policy laid out in the public health order, travelers would be asked to self-attest that they would get retested within three to five days of arrival. It’s not clear whether travelers would be able to use self-administer­ed rapid at-home tests. Viral tests check specimens from a person’s nose or mouth to find out if they are infected with the virus that causes covid-19.

The Justice Department also needs to weigh in on whether officials can ask people to selfquaran­tine, whether fines and penalties are enforceabl­e, and if so, what those amounts should be, the officials said.

As a practical matter, state and local health department­s are unlikely to be able to enforce requiremen­ts for additional testing and any self-quarantine­s once travelers arrive in the United States. More than 200,000 people arrived by plane daily in November, a figure that does not include travel over the Thanksgivi­ng holiday, federal authoritie­s said.

Even if only a quarter of those travelers comply with the requiremen­ts, however, it would make a difference by allowing for more prompt detection and isolation of at least some infected people who might be able to spread the virus, said public health experts.

“If you consider over 200,000 people a day [arriving in the United States], even 50,000 would help” determine the extent of spread, one of the three federal health officials said in a text message.

Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territoria­l Epidemiolo­gists, said that such measures are “a critical step for reducing transmissi­on of SARSCOV-2, whether we are dealing with a newly emerging variant like Omicron or working to reduce transmissi­on of already circulatin­g strains.”

Since the start of the pandemic, different countries and territorie­s have taken vastly different approaches toward preventing the spread of the coronaviru­s, with countries like Australia and China implementi­ng some of the tightest border restrictio­ns. China has banned most foreign visitors, from tourists to students, from entering mainland China. Those few who are allowed to enter, as well as returning Chinese citizens, must undergo at least 14 days of strict quarantine, which can be extended to up to 28 days by local authoritie­s, often followed by another lengthy period of home observatio­n.

Since the discovery of omicron, many countries that had loosened their border restrictio­ns have tightened them up again, including Britain, which said Friday that it was resurrecti­ng its “red list” with the additions of a number of southern African countries. British or Irish citizens or permanent residents returning from a red-listed country must quarantine for 10 days, regardless of vaccinatio­n status, United Kingdom officials said. Citizens of other countries who have visited those countries will not be able to enter the U.K. at all.

U.K. officials announced further restrictio­ns over the weekend, saying that anyone entering the country must now quarantine until they receive the results of a PCR test taken on their second day in the country. Anyone testing positive faces a 10-day quarantine.

“If it were up to me, to fly, you should be fully vaccinated and we should also be testing 24 hours prior.” Celine Gounder, Biden administra­tion transition adviser on covid-19

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 ?? DEMETRIUS FREEMAN/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? President Biden, departing the White House on Tuesday aboard Marine One, is expected to roll out a winter covid strategy that includes more aggressive testing of travelers arriving in the United States.
DEMETRIUS FREEMAN/THE WASHINGTON POST President Biden, departing the White House on Tuesday aboard Marine One, is expected to roll out a winter covid strategy that includes more aggressive testing of travelers arriving in the United States.

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