As a layman who has no education, training or experience in epidemiology, immunology or any other medical field, I’m offering my take on the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, and what it means for travel. Being clearly unqualified to speak on this issue hasn’t stopped others so I feel comfortable adding my non-scientific evaluation of the situation.

Travel Ban

President Biden announced travel bans on certain countries in Southern Africa. Some question the benefit of such a ban because the Omicron variant is already in the United States in all likelihood. Probably so. However not instituting a travel ban or some very tough restrictions on travel that would be tantamount to a travel ban from places where Omicron spread is known would, in my lay opinion, just be adding fuel to a fire.

So far, the ban has just applied to a few countries in Africa. This closure will affect few Americans. The administrations commitment to this policy will be tested when countries in Europe experience Omicron spread.

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Today’s update on the Kayak site shows that travel from South Africa is banned in 90 countries.

What Is Known About Omicron

In short, currently not much. According to a World Health Organization statement dated November 28, 2021, at present it is not yet clear if Omicron is more transmissible, causes more severe disease, or if vaccines are more effective or less effective with this variant. WHO thinks PCR tests are equally effective at identifying SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.529 (Omicron) as they are with other variants. Studies that are currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments.    

What Omicron Could Mean for Travel

The biggest takeaway for me is simply the fact that the future is uncertain. The assumption for many has been that, over time, the Covid-19 threat will subside. But as long as SARS-CoV-2 circulates anywhere, there is the possibility, and maybe even the certainty, that the virus will mutate. Mutations could be harmless or unleash strains that are more deadly.

All travel plans are risky. The farther in the plans are in the future, the more uncertain they maybe because there will be more time for the virus to mutate resulting in new travel restrictions.

My Travel Plans

It seems to make sense to make hay while the sun shines and travel while it is possible. Of course, no matter when I travel, there is always risk of being stranded in a foreign country if an outbreak of a new strain occurs. Purchasing medical insurance is a good idea. You can get policies that cover Covid and any other health issues by the trip or to cover all travel within a year. I must have been feeling optimistic because I purchased an annual plan before traveling to Greece last month.

What Will It Take For A Return To Normalcy?

Testing and vaccines are great.  I’ve been vaccinated and boosted.  Unless there’s something I’ve missed, vaccines and testing won’t eliminate Covid.  It will persist and mutate.  Covid may remain a hindrance to travel until treatments are developed for those who contract it that make Covid no more serious than  ordinary flu.

How Omicron Got Its Name   

The WHO names variants after letters of the Greek alphabet. When Omicron was identified, the WHO was only up to the 12th Greek letter. It skipped the next two letters, “Nu” and “Xi” because “Nu” could be confused with “new” and “Xi” is a common last name and happens to be the name of the President of the People’s Republic of China.

Does the emergence of Omicron affect your travel plans?