Super-Transmissive Delta Variant Cited as Biden Admin Keeps Travel Restrictions in Place
On Monday, the US Department of Veterans Affairs became the first US federal agency to require all healthcare workers on its payroll to obtain COVID-19 vaccines. The move comes as vaccination rates in the US are leveling off as the country slowly approaches full vaccination for 50% of its population.
The US has declined to lower COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreigners entering the country, citing the rise in infections with the delta variant of the virus, SARS-CoV-2. Even in the US, new cases are hitting their highest numbers since the country’s deadly winter climax.
“Given where we are today with the Delta variant, the United States will maintain existing travel restrictions at this point,” a White House official told Reuters on Monday. “Driven by the Delta variant, cases are rising here at home, particularly among those who are unvaccinated and appear likely to continue to increase in the weeks ahead.”
“The administration understands the importance of international travel and is united in wanting to reopen international travel in a safe and sustainable manner,” the official added. The airline, hotel and cruise ship industries have heavily lobbied for the restrictions to be relaxed.
On July 23, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 64,317 new cases of COVID-19, more than six times the number of cases a month ago. Rochelle Walensky, the center’s director, recently noted that as much as 83% of new US infections are by the delta variant, which is significantly more infectious than the original SARS-CoV-2 and can even cause blunted infections in fully vaccinated people.
In the US, however, new cases are sweeping through some of the country’s most unvaccinated regions, including Florida, Texas, Alabama, and Missouri, where many state governors have refused to put in place new social restrictions to limit the virus’ spread and even voiced open contempt for such initiatives, including vaccines, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did recently.
British microbiologist Sharon Peacock told Reuters on Monday, "The biggest risk to the world at the moment is simply Delta," which she called the "fittest and fastest variant yet."
Around the world, restrictions are returning amid a spike in cases.
Israel on Monday banned non-travelers from Ben Gurion International Airport and brought back mask mandates and traveler quarantines weeks ago after it became apparent that the delta variant wouldn’t spare the country despite its high vaccination rate. In Kuwait, unvaccinated people are banned from some shops, and Kazakhstan, which on Monday recorded a record high number of cases, has limited the hours of businesses and closed public facilities such as swimming pools.
However, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday announced the relaxation of some COVID-19 safety measures after a 20% decline in cases from last week. Riots there earlier this month were amplified by economic desperation created by prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns, leaving unemployment higher than 50% in some parts of the country.
The White House said Monday it was not considering a national-level mask mandate and was leaving it up to local governments to decide to do so.
Scott Gottlieb, who was Food and Drug Administration commissioner from 2017 until 2019 under then-US President Donald Trump, told CBS on Sunday he believes that “there is more virus than we're picking up right now," noting that the CDC’s modeling of the new infection wave suggests it doesn’t have a great understanding of where this wave is headed.
The latest projection for the next three weeks says there could be anywhere from 90,000 to 800,000 new COVID-19 cases in the US. That could mean either the wave is about to crest, or the last month’s worth of cases were only just the beginning.
Gottlieb said CDC scientists "need to understand whether or not vaccinated people are developing subclinical and mild infections and whether or not they can spread the virus, because that's going to inform the kinds of decisions that they make."
"It's a question I get a lot from vaccinating individuals is whether or not they can spread the infection," he added. "Again, we know that they were far less likely to spread the infection with the other variants. We don't know a lot about this Delta. This is a question that can be answered, and CDC should be looking at this."