WASHINGTON – Citing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House announced on Friday that it would restrict travel from India to the US starting next week. This is an important new test of the Biden government’s pandemic response.
The decision was one of the most important steps the White House has taken to respond to the numerous new infections in India, where over 3,000 people die every day while citizens gasp on the streets. On Thursday alone, the country recorded nearly 400,000 new coronavirus cases.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the policy will go into effect on Tuesday. The travel restrictions do not apply to citizens or lawful permanent residents of the United States, their spouses, minor children or siblings, or parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents under the age of 21.
The surge in the virus in India has presented Mr Biden’s pandemic with a new challenge. President Donald J. Trump’s decision to impose travel restrictions from China at the start of the pandemic followed days of fierce debate among national security and public health officials and was heavily criticized by Democrats and public health experts who feared the decision emerging would hinder global response to the new threat.
Looking back, federal health officials say the decision was one of the best Mr Trump made in the first few weeks of the crisis. However, the limitations were found to be porous. Tens of thousands of people still came direct flights from China to the United States in the two months after Mr Trump imposed the limits. Ron Klain, now President Biden’s chief of staff, criticized the move as a ineffective “patches”.
And the panic fleeing of Americans from Europe before a travel ban that Mr Trump then imposed on the continent overwhelmed airports in the United States and most likely brought more infections with it.
The Biden government must avoid repeating these problems as it seeks to provide humanitarian aid to an allied country.
The travel restrictions for India could prove to be as permeable as the China regulation. Aside from Americans and legal permanent residents, the exceptions include students, some academics, journalists, fiancés, and immigrants. People can also travel for humanitarian purposes, public health, national security, or critical infrastructure support.
But Mr Biden has advantages over his predecessor, including widespread testing and vaccines. Individuals exempt from the ban must continue to adhere to the guidelines the United States has already established for international travelers, including testing negative for the virus before travel and again upon entry from India, and they must under Quarantined if it is not vaccinated.
Other countries, including the UK, Germany, and Italy, have similar restrictions on travel from India. At the start of his presidency, Mr Biden banned non-citizens of South Africa from entering the United States because of concerns about a variant of the coronavirus that is common in that country, and he extended similar bans Mr Trump has placed on travel from Brazil and some European countries would have.
A senior government official from Biden said Friday that representatives of the National Security Council as well as public health officials in the government had discussed, albeit not controversial, the move to India in the past few days. It was recommended by the Covid-19 response team of Mr Biden, medical experts and national security aides across the federal government.
Another senior official familiar with the decision said it was based heavily on uncertainty about a native variant common in India known as B.1.617. Doctors and news reports have cited anecdotal – but inconclusive – evidence suggesting this is fueling the country’s outbreak.
As a federal health officer, including Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. The director and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert, discussed the possible move with White House officials over the past few days. They stressed that little is known about how coronavirus vaccines respond to this variant.
An official said travel restrictions could be changed once more vaccine response data is available.
The move comes amid a slowdown in American vaccination rates that has hampered the nation’s quest to protect itself. Even with significant momentum in the government’s vaccination campaign – the White House announced Friday that 100 million people in the US have been fully vaccinated – a majority of American adults are still not considered fully protected against the virus.
And in a sign that the government does not want to loosen the restrictions too quickly, the Transportation Security Administration on Friday extended mandates for wearing masks on airplanes and public transport until September 13th.
Even as cases in the United States have receded, the virus has struck India, causing mass burns that last all night. Under heavy pressure to do more to help the ailing nation, the White House announced this week a list of relief effortsThis includes sending out vaccine-making materials, rapid tests, and a tranche of the antiviral drug Remdesivir, which received Food and Drug Administration approval for the treatment of Covid-19 last year.
In the past 24 hours, U.S. military cargo planes have shipped small oxygen cylinders, large oxygen cylinders, regulators, pulse oximeters, about 184,000 rapid tests and about 84,000 N-95 masks to India, Ms. Psaki said Friday.
“There is no question that it is a great loss of life tragedy,” Indian-born Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters on Friday in Cincinnati. “And as I said, and I will say it again, we as a country have made a commitment to the people of India to support them.”
On Monday, the Biden government announced that it intended to make up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine available to other countries, as long as federal regulators deemed the doses safe. The announcement came after Mr Biden spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the two had promised to “work closely together in the fight against Covid-19”.
Several Indian states said this week that they could not comply with the government’s order to extend vaccinations to all adults starting Saturday because they lacked doses. Only a small part of the country has been fully vaccinated.
Dr. Luciana Borio, the former director of medical and bio-preparedness for the National Security Council, said if the United States had more effective traveler quarantine systems and continued in its vaccination campaign, travel restrictions like the one announced on Friday would not do so as needed.
“You can’t fight a pandemic with travel restrictions, unfortunately, which is why it’s so important to share vaccines with the world and take public health action before the virus hits our coast,” she said.
Experts have long advised against restricting travel during outbreaks, arguing that doing so is often ineffective and can limit the movements of doctors and other health professionals trying to contain the disease.
Friday’s decision comes in drastically different circumstances than the first few weeks of the public health crisis.
Health officials have a much better understanding of how the virus spreads. Coronavirus testing, which was in short supply last year when Mr Trump was issuing travel restrictions, is rife and results are often returned quickly. And three highly protective vaccines are widely used. Even when health officials with limited knowledge grapple with the variant of the virus developed in India, these vaccines appear to be effective against other variants.
Months ago India seemed to be escaping the calamity it is now experiencing. After an initial lockdown, the country did not see an explosion in new cases and deaths comparable to those seen in other countries. After the early restrictions were lifted, many Indians became more relaxed about the virus restrictions. Large gatherings, including political rallies and religious festivals, resumed and attracted millions of people.
Hospitals in India are now facing a severe shortage of beds as relatives of the sick have been asking for access to them, as well as oxygen and medication, on social media. Many Indians say they don’t know if they are infected with the coronavirus because overwhelmed laboratories have stopped processing tests. Every fifth test comes out positive, but experts fear that the real toll is much higher.
There is some debate over how to explain the wave of virus cases, including which variant could be most responsible. Researchers say data so far suggests a variant widespread in the UK and the United States, B.1.1.7, as a significant contributing factor to the country’s suffering.
Scientists say that different variants appear to dominate certain parts of India. Variant B.1.617 has been detected in a large number of samples from the central state of Maharashtra, while variant B.1.1.7 is increasing rapidly in New Delhi.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Linda Qiu Contribution to reporting.