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International travelers stranded, angry in omicron’s wake: ‘The first thing I did was cry’

A man at Heathrow Terminal 2 in London on Nov. 28. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

Lauren Kennedy Brady landed in Johannesburg on Friday to a flurry of text messages and news alerts.

The Broadway veteran and North Carolina resident was headed home after 11 days touring Africa alongside her mother, daughter and niece — a long-delayed bucket list item for the foursome. They were at the first stop on what was supposed to be a multi-leg journey from Zambia to Raleigh. Everything was going smoothly.

But scanning her phone, Kennedy Brady, 47, learned a new variant of the coronavirus had been detected in South Africa. Not long after, the family found themselves stranded, their reservation on the next flight canceled amid the new restrictions.

“Until that moment, everything seemed fine. We hadn’t had any problems traveling around. Of course, there’s been protocols … but that’s just the world we live in now,” Kennedy Brady said. “So for this thing to have happened within minutes — it was just like, ‘And stop.’ ”

The disruptions for Kennedy Brady and her family, as well as so many others, come as various governments scramble to place restrictions on travel, closing their borders to southern African countries amid concern about the potentially dangerous variant, dubbed omicron. Those rule changes are already having ripple effects for travelers as the holiday season gets underway.

Travelers have been left stuck abroad, desperately trying to get home amid a slew of cancellations, while others are scratching plans to see loved ones in other countries — for many the latest in a series of pandemic-induced travel frustrations, coming only weeks after the United States lifted its ban on visitors from 33 countries. Travel medicine experts say while the restrictions may allow time to learn more about the variant’s dangers, the concerns leave international travelers to determine how much they’re willing to deal with.

“We felt like we’ve come out of this long, dark tunnel,” said Julian Harrison, the owner of Premier Tours, a Philadelphia-based travel agency that specializes in African tours. “And this has started all over again, basically.”

The United States and several other countries imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other African countries after the omicron variant was discovered. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

With much still to learn about omicron variant, here’s what is known so far

For many, the latest jolt to travel was a reminder of early pandemic days, when borders closed, airports shuttered and flights were grounded overnight. In the aftermath of omicron’s discovery, the European Union, the United States and other nations moved to stop travel to South Africa and nearby countries — travel bans that will largely go into effect Monday, even as African officials and some public health experts condemn the move. Two nations went even further: Israel barred all foreigners from entering, while Morocco announced it was suspending incoming flights for two weeks.

Some countries are imposing new testing and quarantine requirements, sowing added confusion at a moment when many were just starting to feel confident traveling again.

“People are very tired and they want it to be over,” said David Freedman, president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. “And I think we’re going to have to reach an equilibrium before very long.”

Sean Park-Ross had plans to return to South Africa and spend Christmastime with his family and friends — and then he saw news of the variant. Park-Ross, who travels all over for his work in software development, and is now in Mexico City, said he thought even if he could make it there, it might be a while before he could leave.

His mother is “super cheerful and super understanding,” though his family overall was “really looking forward to seeing me, spending some good Christmastime together,” Park-Ross said. He thought about his 5-year-old nephew and his parents, who are in their 70s.

“I haven’t seen them in ages because I’m all around the world,” he said. “It really sucks.”

As omicron variant is detected around the world, travel bans may be too late, experts say

South African officials have criticized the travel bans, describing them as a draconian measure that in effect punishes the nation for alerting the world to a new variant. Public health experts also note that by the time bans go into place, a highly transmissible variant like omicron has most likely already spread across much of the globe.

In an address to the nation, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the “only thing that prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond, and also to recover from the pandemic.”

But authorities in the United States and elsewhere defended the move Sunday, with President Biden’s top coronavirus adviser, Anthony S. Fauci, telling NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the “positive effect is to get us better prepared, to rev up on the vaccination, to be really ready for something that may not actually be a big deal, but we want to make sure that we’re prepared for the worst.”

"It will be here. The question is, will we be prepared for it?” top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci said of the omicron variant on Nov. 28. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Lin Chen, director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., said the restrictions may not contain the variant, but “probably buys the world some time to learn how extensive omicron is present and examine its characteristics.”

“Given the concerns, travel to areas that are known to be affected will involve new rules and inconveniences,” Chen said in an email. She said travelers “need to decide whether they accept those challenges” or if it’s “better to wait until more is known about omicron.”

Freedman said the good news is that the “science is moving at lightning speed in a way that wouldn’t have been possible five or 10 years ago. We’re getting answers to some pretty complicated questions in a matter of weeks rather than several months.”

Still, it could be a few weeks before it’s known whether the vaccines work against this strain. In the meantime, he said, he personally would not make any end-of-year holiday travel plans internationally “if I wasn’t willing to take a chance that I was going to get stuck overseas.”

Biden administration focuses on booster shots as best strategy against new coronavirus variant

As news of the variant emerged, Kennedy Brady described a chaotic scene at the airport: massive lines at customer service counters, with waiting travelers all fretting about how they would get to their various destinations outside South Africa. People were jostling to beat the clock, to be the first to speak with someone.

“It felt panicky because there was just so much chatter around us,” Kennedy Brady said, “and everybody was just like, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do?’ ”

That frustration was palpable for many international travelers, many of whom had only recently regained enough a sense of security to go abroad again.

Johannesburg resident Ayesha Shaw said she “definitely thought we were over the biggest hurdle” after pandemic restrictions caused months of separation from her boyfriend, who lives in the United States. She had a Saturday plane ticket to New York to see him, and watched the news Friday with growing trepidation. Minutes after midnight on Saturday, she got an email from Turkish Airlines: The flight out of Johannesburg was canceled.

“I was so tired at that point, so emotionally exhausted, I was like, 'I’m going to bed,’ ” the 28-year-old recalled. “When I got up, the first thing I did was cry.”

Park-Ross, in Mexico, said he understands that restrictions need to be implemented, emphasizing: “I go by the science and what the scientists say.” But he said once more is known about omicron, “I just hope they take the bans out as quickly as they put them in.”

Boris Johnson announces tougher entry rules after 2 cases of omicron detected in the U.K.

Shaw also expressed frustration at the travel restrictions, noting they are discouraged by the World Health Organization. She had followed coronavirus precautions and gotten vaccinated, she said, adding that “it does feel that even if you do everything right, it’s kind of like you still are not able to do the things that you want to do.”

Freedman acknowledged the panic that quickly emerged over the new variant is “very disruptive.” He said that like the flu virus, which evolves and requires new vaccines every winter, “we’re going to have to live with the virus and with mutations occurring.”

“We’re not going to be able to live like this forever, going into a panic every time there’s a mutation of the virus somewhere in the world,” he said.

Kennedy Brady and her family managed to find a hotel in Johannesburg, where they were holed up on Sunday, trying to avoid mingling with others out of concern about the variant. They were searching for other paths out of the country, with help from family back home. As U.S. citizens, they are allowed to travel back, but are struggling to find a flight to get there.

For now, she is focusing on the positives: “We’re safe, we’re healthy, and we’re together.”

Amy B Wang in Washington and Lesley Wroughton in Cape Town, South Africa, contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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