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The Trump White House on Monday released a presidential proclamation terminating travel bans on visitors from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and the European Schengen area starting on Jan. 26, when a negative Covid-19 test will be required to enter the country. It took less than an hour before the incoming Biden administration’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, tweeted, “On the advice of our medical team, the administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.”

It isn’t clear what advice the medical team gave, but scientific evidence suggests that extending such restrictions will not make Americans safer. Instead, travel bans will result in adverse consequences for millions of family members who have been separated for over 10 months, as well as avoidable economic losses.

Travel bans were first introduced in late January 2020, and extended in March and May, as a way to protect the American public from widespread introduction of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. At the outset, with limited information about the virulence of the virus and case counts in the U.S., these bans were justified — and could even have been more stringent for a short period of time to buy time and bolster preparedness.

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Yet once community spread became the dominant source of transmission, the benefits of travel bans became marginal at best. Extending them does little to help meaningfully reduce the number of infections, since U.S. citizens and residents are still allowed to travel, along with select other visa holders who have been exempted. And these bans have also taken economic and human tolls while creating a false sense of protection and security.

Other tools, including testing mandates, quarantines, and end-to-end contact tracing, will make a much bigger difference at a fraction of the cost.

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Why such an ineffective policy remains in place

The public and many political leaders tend to be drawn to easy fixes. Travel bans create the impression of a decisive public health response. During the Trump administration, they aligned with xenophobic policies against China and other countries.

Community spread — not importation — quickly became the dominant source of transmission in the United States. And for most of the past 10 months, the country has had one of the highest rates of Covid-19-related infection and death per capita. Given what we know about the relative safety of air travel and the natural decline in appetite for travel since the virus first emerged, a better response to the pandemic would have consisted of more targeted interventions: masks mandates, mandatory pre- or post-travel testing, quarantines for infected travelers, and contact tracing.

As we write this, about 1 in 35 Americans are infected with Covid-19, more than in most parts of the world from which the U.S. bans travelers — only Belgium, France, Serbia, Ireland, and French Polynesia have higher infection rates.

A policy of short-term travel restrictions, such as when investigating a novel viral strain, complemented by far more affordable and effective interventions is a better way forward.

The economic and human toll of travel bans

Preventing travel by certain groups of visitors carries an enormous human and economic toll. First, the economic costs of the pandemic travel slump was estimated to result in a loss of $355 billion to the U.S. travel industry in 2020 alone, including a $55 billion drop in taxes and a loss of 4.6 million jobs. While it is too early to quantify the exact impact of travel restrictions, the International Air Transport Association has shown that after increasing in the summer months of 2020, the bookings count has plateaued at about 60% to 70% lower relative to the year before. While we cannot speculate about the impact of removing travel restrictions on U.S. airlines, a 45% increase in bookings was observed when the United Kingdom shortened its quarantine from 14 to five days, a meaningful and evidence-based policy change.

Support for travel restrictions may be justified by those who have been isolating away from their relatives within the United States. Yet millions of Americans and many foreign-born U.S. residents have vital family ties to either dependents or caregivers in other countries who may be unable to enter the U.S. unless they first spend 14 days in a country not currently subject to the bans. For most people, this means not being able to help a sick relative or attend important family events. For others, it leads to creative but self-defeating solutions like spending 14 days in an exempt country like Mexico or Serbia before entering the U.S. Neither contributes to protecting the public health here but increases the cost to families that are separated for so long.

We live in a globalized world, and the personal and professional toll on those separated by travel restrictions is hard to quantify. Still, better approaches are possible. The European Union’s Free Movement Directive requires member states to “facilitate the reunion of people in durable relationships.” The EU Council Recommendation from June 2020 lists “passengers travelling for imperative family reasons” and “passengers in transit” in exemptions to any travel restrictions, which also include individuals seeking asylum, students, and workers. The U.S. has not implemented similar reunification policies to serve as exemptions to travel bans.

As vaccines become more widely available and the number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. and other countries decline, travel restrictions will become completely futile. The Biden administration should support the termination of existing travel restrictions on Jan. 26 — when pre-trip coronavirus testing for incoming visitors is scheduled to become mandatory — and add or expand exemptions for those holding valid family, fiance, and other U.S. visas.

Jakub Hlávka is a research assistant professor of health policy and management at the USC Price School of Public Policy and a fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics. Lisa Bari is the interim CEO of the Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative.

  • We used to stay in the US for 6 month a year. We are property owners and pay a huge amount of property tax for 14 years now, but we cannot come into the country! We supported the State of Florida, we don‘t know how much we spent in the last 14 years … we bought cars , furniture a.s.o,
    I feel rather bitter!

  • This is exactly what I have been thinking and looking for.
    Travel bans simply put families apart now. It may help prevent the spread of the virus but not significantly.
    In my case I have been apart from my fiancé for 1 year (today literaly makes 1 year since we last met), and we started a visa process since April 2020. K-1 visa is not in any proclamations that ban issuing of visas, but US embassies choose not to process them.
    So many people lifes are stuck because of this. I know because mine literaly is stuck. Since June 2020 I have been waiting to be with my fiancé again, tried to visit in hope travel bans would be lifted soon but nothing.
    The “people with power” see travel bans as a health measure. I (and probably other people in the same situation) see travel bans as some sort of illness that attacks you by the heart until it affects your mental as well.
    Life has been pretty much disappointing for the last 10 months

  • A follow up: News reports indicate CDC has issued orders for somewhat stricter procedures for international arrivals, but they are still too weak and do not go into effect for two weeks. I was told Taiwan puts people under armed guard for two weeks – (in hotels, but still, actually guarded)
    I think we need to do the same. Even a few weeks of delaying the arrival of evasive variants, if the time is spent modifying the vaccines successfully, could be very helpful.

  • I feel I really must upgrade my previous posts – Travel Bans, from Brazil and South Africa, and much stricter quarantine for any travelers we do let in, are desperately needed.
    I urge everyone to look at the news from Manaus – they are having a very severe outbreak there – worse, according to some officials, than the first one back in May/June – it is important to know, a researcher in Sao Paulo found the infection rate in Manaus after the May/June outbreak had been almost 70% – far, far more than we will have vaccinated here any time soon.
    The new outbreak is almost certainly due to a new variant which evades immunity to the first variant. All the research indicates immunity last more than 7 months, but this is not only reinfecting some people, it is a huge outbreak. So, it is almost certainly a new variant.
    If these variants get here, all indications are they will be as bad as the first wave – or worse. Both of them are believed to spread much faster.
    I urge everyone who reads this to contact the White House and their elected officials to demand a real quarantine of international travelers – basically, the safe thing to do is put all travelers under armed guard for two weeks or so.

  • Banning travel will not necessarily keep antibody-dodging mutations out of the country. To the contrary, a mutation can arise more than once, and in widely separated locations, such as South Africa, Brazil, and California, if the mutation is easy and advantageous to the virus. Social distancing and wearing of PPE, as well as rapid vaccine change, are the way to go – not banning travel.

    A strict travel ban should only be imposed for a few weeks at a time, and even then, only with very good reason.

    • By “vaccine change”, I also mean vaccines and monoclonal antibodies. We need to keep our eyes on the ball here, and create a regulatory structure that allows fast changes when the virus shifts its spots. Research into likely mutations and evolutions is necessary. If a mutation is found to be likely, pharma needs to swat it with a vaccine/ antibody.

    • Obviously it is possible the variants which seem to reinfect are already here – obviously they can also occur here – these are NOT good reasons to not do intensive travel bans from effected areas.
      The latest news from Manaus seems to be they are having an extreme outbreak with people not able to buy oxygen – forget the hospitals having any, these are private individuals who got welding tanks but can not get oxygen to refill them.
      This second epidemic, the head of the Tropical Medicine institute there said it was worse than the first one back in May/June – is almost certainly the result of a new variant – and, maybe it is far worse than the South African, because that one is causing reinfections but maybe not on the scale of the one in Manaus.
      I do not mean to sound angry, but I believe I have stated the “good reason” for a travel ban already, but please look in NPR if you have doubt – and there is NO reason at all to end a travel ban in a few weeks, you end it only after the new variant is already here.

  • Not to beat this to death, but the quarantine procedures for travelers from South Africa seem completely inadequate.
    The media reports a traveler get’s checked before getting on the plane – but as we all know, everyone will have a negative test immediately after infection – and besides, they could be infected in the airport itself – then on arrival here, they are screened – again, the flight times are within the window between infection and enough replication to give a positive test result – and then, they are told to go into quarantine -but NOT put under guard or otherwise controlled.

    This is certain to allow the new variant in, IMO.

    So, what will happen, if South African reports are true, when it gets here?

    1. South Africa reports people previously infected and recovered are being reinfected by this variant.
    Since nearly all USA resistance to the epidemic is from natural immunity, this means we can have essentially a new epidemic here – we do not know if any of the previously infected are immune, but besides clinical observations of reinfection, research indicates antibodies to old variant do not effect this one much at all.

    So, a brand new epidemic.

    Dr. Fauci seems to think the high effectivity of the vaccines will protect us – but there is no clinical evidence, nor much theoretical evidence, for that – tell me if I am wrong.

    But, even if the vaccines DID offer protection, we have 3M people vaccinated and project we will reach herd immunity by mid summer – BUT, the new variant is far more contagious – so it will require MORE vaccination than the old one- so, maybe the end of summer, IF the vaccines work at all?

    The new SA variant also reportedly is making a lot of young people severely ill – so, it will be worse in that way – and most likely it is more lethal to all ages than the old one, just as the UK variant is now reported to be by Boris Johnson.

    So, please everyone, call your political leaders and demand true quarantine procedures, let’s start acting like people’s lives depend on keeping this thing out.

    • Look at who the variant is giving more severe illnesses to – younger folks. Mmm-hmmm. People who might have had mild or asymptomatic COVID the first time around. It’s those people whose antibodies have been reported ineffective against South Africa/Brazil. People who had had more severe COVID still had resistant antibodies – and it is known that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines simulate antibody production similar to a SEVERE case. Thus, there should still be some protection against South African and Brazilian variants with the current vaccine.
      Most people will still survive the new UK variant – the mortality goes up from, what, 10 in 1000 to 13? So what?

      We need to work on ensuring that children and youth are vaccinated, not just old people. It’s the young and active that are probably spreading the disease the most nowadays. We need vaccine requirements for travel. We need to work on producing a one-shot vaccine – and changing and adapting it rapidly, every three to six months , and requiring people get shots from the latest vaccine before travel.

    • John – please be careful about spreading bad information – according to Dr. Fauci, the South Africa variant is NOT known to be here – and it is the one he is most scared of.
      With good reason, see my other posts – we need a very strict quarantine, not “honor system” to keep the SA variant out as long as possible.

    • The South Africa variant is not necessarily here yet, but we should inoculate against it anyway. While the vaccines might not be quite as effective, they will likely still be effective against the South African and related (or co-evolutionary) variants. We still need to keep our eyes on the ball, though, step up gene sequencing, and also keep up looking at COVID evolution.

  • We need immediate travel bans, and contact tracing, from the countries which have the South African variant.
    South Africa, obviously, I see reports now it is in 20 countries.
    As best I can tell, all indications are this variant will cause, essentially, a brand new epidemic worse than what we have already had. And worldwide a new pandemic worse than before.
    It spreads faster, infects people who were sick in the first wave, and apparently makes far more young people seriously ill.
    And it MAY evade the immunity provided by the two vaccines used in the US at present.
    I urge everyone to contact their politicians and the White House and CDC to urge a very strict ban on travel from every suspect country.
    What I read about, testing before getting on the plane, screening when travelers arrive, and an apparently “honor system” quarantine once here, is horribly inadequate.
    I fully understand this variant may already be here, undetected, but even if that is so, we should try to keep out more people with it. In a few months of course, the numbers of people infected with it would be the same, but even very marginal delays may be worth the effort – if a few weeks will let the vaccines be modified before the new variant becomes a wave, those few weeks may save a lot of people.
    I am not a virologist or epidemiologist but I think it is interesting to note, from what I read, the great plagues came in waves – perhaps it is the norm for an emergent disease to mutate and come back to do more harm? Or perhaps those which do not do that did not become famous?

    Anyway, we seem to be in great danger now and need to have a real travel ban, or at least, no “honor system” until this new threat is fully countered.

    Please everyone pass the word and if you agree push those in power to take some action.

    • See the thing is-all the so called “variants” are already likely everywhere. Something called “founders bias”-just because you suddenly became aware of it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before. And USA is one of the WORST for genotyping-way behind many countries. UK is one of the better ones.

      And if our innate immune systems (along with even a moderately effective vaccine-isn’t is FUNNY how now the 95% effective vaccine isn’t GOOD ENOUGH anymore when last spring “experts” were saying even 70% would be excellent????? HMMMM wonder WHY?) can’t handle the virus the human race is basically doomed anyway and NO stupid ill thought out travel ban will do ANY good other than cause incidental further suffering anyway

    • Monyka – IF the new variant is here, which is certainly possible, then of course you are right, but when the consequences are so dire, and the cost of actually taking strong action is so low by comparison, it is not a valid argument for inaction.
      So far, we have not heard of many cases of reinfection in the US, nor ANY confirmed cases of South African variant, so there is good reason to think we still can keep it out. Please read up on the news from South Africa before mocking the importance of this. I am basing my concern primarily on their reports, though there seems to be more and more info from other sources to confirm it.
      Overall your Comment does not refute mine, please if you can not come up with better reasons, reconsider it.

    • And how is the vaccine situation doing in South Africa? How many South Africans have been vaccinated? How many cases have there been in SA? How many have been potentially reinfected? Hmm?

      From what I read, South Africa hasn’t been vaccinating very much, if at all, and reinfections are still a low percentage of cases.

    • So far, there are 4,000 “potential reinfections” out of 1.1 million infections in South Africa. Most of the infecting going on is of people who have never been infected before, and many of the people who have already had COVID are still apparently protected to some extent. While this wave has had over 100,000 infections already, it is being driven by the new variant – and so far it seems to have reached perhaps 4,000 pre-infected people. Not a large percentage of those previously infected.

  • The authors address this concern:

    “A policy of short-term travel restrictions, such as when investigating a novel viral strain, complemented by far more affordable and effective interventions is a better way forward.”

    • Your Comment is totally correct, and I want to be clear, my alarm raising is not in conflict with that at all – I am just saying what we are doing is inadequate, not that it should not be targeted towards dangerous variants . – (but since you brought it up – NO, take no chances, even though most countries have less disease than we do, the value of keeping out a dangerous variant is too great, inconvenience to a couple million travelers is worth it)
      I said nothing directly critical of the author’s thesis, but I do not believe it is what should be emphasized now – what we need now is to impose strict restrictions, in the hope of buying time.
      I note also – UK, Germany, Israel, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey have all reportedly instituted travel bans from South Africa.

  • With all due respect…By the time the science catches up with reality it will be too late. As an example, as reported on Promedmail preliminary tests show that the South African variant may evade anitbodies in a surprising percentage of people. More tests and verification are necessary of course. How or if the new variant is able to evade the vaccines in play has not been tested. The SA variant is already in the UK and some other countries if memory serves. Waiting for the science to catch up to that variant could result in it gaining a strong foothold here and if it does prove to be able to evade the current Covid antibodies and / or is vaccine resistant….It would be too late to act.

    • I do not know your attitude towards Dr. Fauci or the current or recent past people in charge, but I have been appalled to read about the South African variant and then see the “Happy Days are Here Again” attitudes that seem to be prevailing.
      Also, it appears Biden has not put in place any special restrictions on travel from countries shown to have it.
      I admire Dr. Fauci but I am not sure he is up to this task, or has been up to it. He is amazingly vigorous and mentally solid, far more than a competent doctor or most people half his age – but maybe that was not enough?
      In the absence of good leadership, in my view, he got made into a hero but the problem with that is, constructive criticism maybe is not offered when it should be?

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