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Monday, February 6, 2023

Travelers to the United States are counting hours: can they get their tests back in time?

LONDON. Deborah Tudhope was worried. A London-based American lawyer, she hoped to fly back to the United States in two weeks to see her 96-year-old mother, who lives in a nursing home in Maine. But Omicron’s travel restrictions, announced Thursday by the White House, are causing her to fear the trip might not work.

Ms Toodehope, 72, had to postpone a mandatory coronavirus test the day before departure, which the airline had already postponed for a day. As the rules seemed to change by the hour, she said she faced many obstacles: getting out of the UK, getting to the United States, and visiting her mother at home.

“I don’t know how this is going to work,” said Ms. Tudhope, who described herself as disappointed if not surprised by the commotion. “But I made sure that tickets can be rebooked.”

Such private dramas are playing out around the world as thousands of people – Americans living overseas and foreigners hoping to visit the United States – grapple with the new challenges of vacation travel in the Covid era.

The proliferation of the Omicron variant last week has added more uncertainty to an already tense event. On Thursday, the Biden administration slashed the time frame for international travelers to the United States to take a Covid test during the day before departure, regardless of vaccination status.

This has left potential travelers nervous about whether they will get their test results in time to fly, or worried that their home countries might impose stricter travel bans while they are away.

The United States did not impose a mandatory seven-day quarantine on arrivals, which many travelers say would have thwarted their plans. He also did not update his standard for acceptable screening of Covid from antigen to a PCR test, which can take significantly longer to get results.

But the new one-day testing window announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did add an extra layer of pre-flight stress nonetheless.

Paula Tolton, 23, an American student from Taipei, Taiwan who plans to fly home next month to visit her family in Jacksonville, Florida, said she was worried the new rules could cause her to miss her flight. Even the previous testing requirement for the United States, negative on The testing, carried out within three days of arriving in the country, caused “maximum alarm,” she said.

“I used to have this stress where the PCR test didn’t come back when I was supposed to fly in April,” she said. “I was terrified.”

Public health experts said there is a good reason for shortening the time it takes to get test results: it will detect more infections in travelers. And since antigen test results are usually available within a few hours, it should be possible to get tested and get results within the prescribed period.

“A negative test result is a good idea, especially since fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. But she acknowledged that the patchwork of travel restrictions and the changing nature of regulations are taking their toll on people.

“Uncertainty is killing the tourism industry and people’s confidence in booking and travel,” said Professor Sridhar. “They need a standard approach in different countries and stability over time.”

Travel agents have expressed relief that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended a seven-day quarantine. “You don’t go to New York to self-isolate in a nine-square-meter hotel room,” said Jean-Pierre Mas, president of Les Entreprises du Voyage, a union representing major French travel agencies and tour operators.

After more than a year of disruptions related to the pandemic, Mr Mas said many travelers are used to testing requirements and likely won’t be deterred by the new regulations. But he said a lack of confidence – and the feeling that governments are drastically changing rules in response to the perceived threat of a new option – is keeping people at home. After a rise in the summer and early fall, he said, business has plummeted over the past few weeks by about 25 percent compared to the same period in 2019.

“In the United States, we have hardly sold travel in the past four to five days,” said Mr. Mas, although it remains a popular destination for French tourists who flock to New York for Christmas.

What makes the latest commotion particularly painful for many is that just a few weeks ago, the United States eased travel restrictions on international travelers who were fully vaccinated, leading to tearful reunions.

At the same time, after a long hiatus in the early stages of the pandemic, travel between Europe and the United States has skyrocketed. Flights between the United States and Italy have been full until recently, and the number of bookings has remained largely unchanged from 2019, according to a spokesman for Fiavet, an association of Italian travel agencies.

British Airways, Air France and United Airlines have added more transatlantic flights, and Italian airline ITA Airways has added daily flights between Rome and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Officials in Italy said the country is well prepared for a dramatic increase in the number of tests for passengers bound for the United States. In the weeks since the government began requiring frequent negative tests for all unvaccinated Italian workers, pharmacies have been processing up to a million rapid tests a day.

“The prospect of faster swabs for travelers to the US is not a problem for pharmacies here,” said Marco Cossolo, president of Federfarma, Italy’s largest private pharmacy association.

South Korea has increased capacity to conduct an average of 68,000 PCR tests per day, according to Seung-ho Choi, deputy director of risk communication at the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Results almost always come within 24 hours, he said, although travelers who fly early in the morning when clinics are closed may have to look for hospitals that do the tests.

The UK is among several countries that recently requested testing for arriving travelers within a day or two of arrival. Randox Laboratories, a UK-based company that provides Covid tests for travel, said Thursday that since changes were announced for travelers entering the UK last weekend, it has increased PCR testing capabilities to a pandemic peak of 180,000 tests per day.

It will also help with handling tests for U.S. travelers, the company said.

For Europeans associated with the United States, the new rules are just the last wild card in life, already in constant flux.

“What a nightmare – enough is enough!” – said 28-year-old Alice Volpi when talking about the impending American restrictions.

An Italian woman who lived in New York at the start of the pandemic, Ms. Volpi described how she was unable to return home to Italy for several months due to a travel ban in her country. When she finally returned home, the travel ban imposed by the United States prevented her from returning to her boyfriend in New York.

“The most frustrating thing is that you can never make a plan in more than a week because things can change every day,” Ms Volpi said, insisting that she would insist on plans to visit her boyfriend for Christmas. … “It doesn’t allow me to remain serene.”

For some Americans overseas who fear borders could close again if Omicron proves to be a deadly threat, the solution is to extend their travel times. The testing requirements are stressful, they said, but not as much as the possibility that the Biden administration could end up completely blocking travel routes.

“This is what worries me most about not seeing my family,” said Sara Little, 25, who moved from New York to London in September to study. She originally planned to fly home closer to Christmas, but is now trying to book a flight early next week.

“It would be awful if I couldn’t go home,” said Ms. Little.

Gaia Pianidjani and Emma Bubola provided reports from Rome; Saskia Solomon and Isabella Quay from London; Aurelien Breeden from Paris; John Yoon from Seoul and Cheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington.

World Nation News Desk
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