Is it safe to travel now? It depends. The Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has contributed to a “tidal wave” of infections in the United Kingdom, is rattling Europe and fueling dread about the holidays. Countries have responded by returning to 2020-like restrictions with the Netherlands in lockdown until January 14 and France banning tourists from the U.K. for now.
That tidal wave appears to be headed to the United States. In the U.S., COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly in places like New York State, which broke a record for new cases reported in one day (22,000) on Saturday.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky says she expects Omicron to become the dominant variant in the coming weeks, setting the stage for a new wave of infections.
This has prompted White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients to warn that the unvaccinated are “looking at a winter of severe illness and death—for yourselves, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.” President Joe Biden will address the country December 21 to talk about Omicron and its challenges. This comes when only 61.4 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.
Although many pandemic restrictions and precautions are still in place, the anticipated Omicron surge is a serious cause for concern, especially as holiday travel is underway. This leaves many travelers—who have planned holiday reunions for months—with the question: Now what?
One fact has emerged: You can’t eliminate the risk of catching the coronavirus while traveling, but you can minimize it. Here’s everything you need to know about traveling during the latest surge.
Karen Albicy holds her daughter, Kaia, while she awaits a COVID-19 test at George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas on December 3, 2021. Many international destinations now require travelers to present recent negative test results upon arrival.
Photograph by Brandon Bell, Getty Images
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What is Omicron, and why is there heightened concern?
Omicron was first detected in South Africa’s Gauteng Province, in late November. Since then, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified Omicron as a variant of concern, along with Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta.
Viruses are constantly changing, including the one that causes COVID-19. These changes occur over time and can lead to the emergence of variants that may have new characteristics.
Ongoing analysis shows Omicron is the most contagious variant to date. It shares many key mutations with previous variants of concern, but it has accumulated a dozen novel mutations on its spike protein, the part of the virus that is essential for infecting human cells. Overall, Omicron has 32 mutations, some of which could infect cells faster and transmit more easily from person to person.
(Here’s why you shouldn’t panic over the Omicron variant.)
Positive cases in the region where Omicron was first detected increased from less than one percent to more than 30 percent in three weeks. Despite mounting concerns, White House chief medical adviser Dr. …….