The US Extends Masking Mandate, Tightens COVID-19 Testing Timeline for Travel

The news comes just one day after Omicron was first identified in the U.S.

Biden Administration To Require All Travelers Entering U.S. To Be Tested For Covid
Mario Tama / Getty Images

Due to the discovery and growing spread of the new Omicron variant, the Biden Administration has announced stricter travel protocols and COVID-19 restrictions at a speech Thursday at the National Institutes of Health.

"The United States has come far in its fight against the virus and is more prepared than ever to deal with the challenges of COVID-19," said the White House in a statement. "We have the public health tools we need to continue to fight this virus."

This announcement comes one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first official case of the Omicron variant in the U.S., in California.

Within the Administration's nine-part plan to fight the virus is President Biden's initiative to enact "stronger public health protocols for safe international travel." To that end, the U.S. will require all air passengers ages 2 and older arriving in the U.S., regardless of vaccination status or nationality, to provide a negative antigen viral test taken one day before departure, or show documentation proving that they have recovered from COVID-19 in the last 90 days. Travelers will also need to submit an attestation form to the airline prior to boarding. The mandate will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 6.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is also extending its masking mandate, requiring travelers to wear masks on aircraft, trains, and public transit, and at transportation hubs—including airports and indoor bus terminals—through March 18. Those who do not submit to this mandate will risk getting fined anywhere from $500 to $3,000.

The Omicron variant, which was first reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa on Nov. 24, was classified a Variant of Concern by the international public health agency just two days later. In an attempt to stop its spread, the U.S. has joined countries around the globe in restricting travel for non-U.S. citizens from eight African countries—Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—as of Nov. 29.

But the decision has not come without criticism, particularly from WHO. "Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of Omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods," said WHO in a statement. "In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data."

However, despite their opposition to travel bans, WHO issued a travel advisory for those most at risk of infection. "Persons who are unwell, or who have not been fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID-19 (e.g. heart disease, cancer, and diabetes) should be advised to postpone travel to areas with community transmission."

Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "First Confirmed Case of Omicron Variant Detected in the United States." December 1, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Requirement for Proof of Negative COVID-19 Test or Documentation of Recovery from COVID-19." December 2, 2021.

  3. World Health Organization. "Classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern." November 26, 2021.

  4. The White House. "A Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Certain Additional Persons Who Pose a Risk of Transmitting Coronavirus Disease 2019." November 26, 2021.