The United States served notice Monday that it will keep existing Covid-19 restrictions on international travel in place for now due to concerns about the surging infection rate because of the delta variant.
It was the latest sign that the White House has to recalibrate its thinking around the coronavirus pandemic as the more infectious variant surges across the US and a substantial chunk of the population resists vaccination.
It was also a reversal from the sentiment President Joe Biden voiced earlier this month when he said his administration was “in the process” of considering how soon the US could lift the ban on European travel bound for the US after the issue was raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to the White House.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the restrictions would continue for now. “Driven by the delta variant, cases are rising here at home, particularly among those who are unvaccinated, and appears likely to continue in the weeks ahead,” she said. The rising cases also are causing the administration to take a closer look at policies on wearing masks.
On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first first major federal agency to require its health care workers to get Covid-19 vaccines. And over the weekend, US health officials acknowledged they’re considering changing the federal government’s recommendations on wearing masks.
The delta variant is a mutated coronavirus that spreads more easily than other versions. It was first detected in India but now has been identified around the world. Last week, US health officials said the variant accounts for an estimated 83% of US Covid-19 cases, and noted a 32% increase in Covid hospitalizations from the previous week.
The rise in cases has prompted some state and local officials to reinstate masking guidance, even for vaccinated Americans. The White House follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance released in May, which states those who are unvaccinated don’t have to wear masks indoors. They’ve thus far made no changes to Biden’s public events, and the president is still traveling the country and participating in events unmasked.
But Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said on CNN’s State of the Union this Sunday that recommending that the vaccinated wear masks is “under active consideration” by the government’s leading public health officials.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” Fauci said, describing him as “very frustrated.”
The surge in the delta variant poses a major political challenge for Biden, who called it a “great day” for Americans when the CDC released its relaxed masking guidance in May and on July 4 declared that “the virus is on the run and America is coming back.” He’s spent the past few months shifting his focus from dire warnings to Americans to get vaccinated to public events pitching his infrastructure, education and jobs proposals, which are currently in the middle of fevered negotiations on Capitol Hill.