Shortly after Thanksgiving weekend, I posted all of the “knowns” and “unknowns” about the Omicron variant and how it might impact your plans for overseas travel in the months ahead. We have learned more about Omicron in the past two weeks. Given my international risk management background, I wanted to share with you some updated insights.
Omicron Health Headlines
The main health headlines seem to be: Omicron is clearly more transmissible than Delta or any of the previous variants. Omicron appears to be milder, but we still need to learn more since hospitalizations and deaths always lag case counts. Omicron does have the potential to break through the vaccines. For healthy adults who have been vaccinated and boostered, it appears highly unlikely that you will get very sick from it.
Omicron Travel Headlines
The main travel headlines seem to be: Other than restricting travelers from Southern Africa (which is a separate discussion about whether this is appropriate), there seems to be little appetite or momentum for banning overseas travel. Tighter restrictions are being put in place regarding masking and needing to show proof of vaccination to enter certain venues, but again there seems to be little appetite to return to lockdown measures that were commonplace in 2020. A change in U.S. rules requiring a negative test within 24 hours of return after an international trip will definitely create logistical hassles and uncertainty for travelers.
Omicron in the News
Let’s delve a little deeper into Omicron news — all from Monday, December 13 and Tuesday, December 14. On the surface, this will sound like we should be in widespread panic. But please don’t panic. We have learned a lot over the past year about how to reduce the likelihood of getting sick from COVID-19, and how to treat it for those who do become ill.
- The U.S. CDC reports that Omicron already makes up 3% of the new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., up from less than half a percent one week ago. It is expected to expand rapidly here. Vaccine scientist Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor University says that Omicron is like “a fast-moving freight train” and worries about the impact on hospitals because even if Omicron yields a smaller percentage of people requiring hospitalization, a major surge in cases will still lead to at least a minor surge in raw numbers of sick people.
- Britain has indicated that Omicron is expected to be the dominant variant within days. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the U.K. will face a “tidal wave of Omicron” in the weeks ahead.
- Cornell University in Ithaca, New York has reported 900 cases of COVID-19 in the last week. Many of these are Omicron variant and most are in fully vaccinated students, since they have a campus-wide vaccine requirement. Some of those who have tested positive have been boostered. Perhaps most importantly, the university said “we have not seen severe illness in any of our infected students”. Still, the university has shut down the campus and transitioned all final exams to be online. Some important context not being widely reported in the media: The university requires students to test once per week, so these cases were discovered not because of illness, but because of the school’s rigorous and routine testing regimen.
- More sporting events are being cancelled. The Chicago Bulls NBA team has cancelled the next two games due to COVID, and two English Premier League matches have been cancelled following outbreaks at Manchester United and Tottenham. The Premier League is instituting new requirements for fans before they can attend games. Expect more of this in the weeks ahead.
- On the positive side, it seems that Omicron may already have peaked in South Africa, just around one month after the earliest traceable case. Typically, peaks have taken 2 to 2.5 months to occur.
Aside from encouraging the unvaccinated to become vaccinated and the unboostered to become boostered, what can we take away from the above new developments? Here is my view:
- As an interconnected global society, it is going to be a challenge to hide from Omicron. Even if it hasn’t been confirmed in every country, it almost certainly is in every country. And it will spread rapidly, regardless of vaccination trends.
- As a fully vaccinated, recently boostered, healthy adult, I’m no longer scared for myself or my family about getting COVID-19. Just like the flu, I don’t want it and I’m going to take precautions to avoid it. But it doesn’t stress me out anymore. My biggest concern for my family is the unexpected inconvenience of testing positive, not illness.
- I do worry very much about those who have chosen not to get vaccinated. I do worry about those who are boostered but have compromised immune systems and haven’t been able to build sufficient antibodies. I do worry about vaccine disparities globally and what Omicron still could mean to countries like Ghana (less than 3% vaccinated) and Tanzania (less than 2% vaccinated).
Prospects for Travel
While I expect some countries to add barriers for entry and quarantine, I don’t anticipate we will return to the near-complete closure of international travel from last year. While I expect overseas trips will be able to continue, there is a greater risk over the next few months of being inconvenienced, especially at the tail end of your travel. I expect there will be many more cases of tourists feeling absolutely fine, but testing positive for COVID-19 less than 24 hours prior to return to the United States and needing to extend their stays before being permitted to return home. For some families, this will be a showstopper and will cause them to defer upcoming travel.
My current recommendations for individual travel through January: If you are healthy and boostered (or have children who are vaccinated but not yet eligible for boosters), travel can continue to many countries. Recognize there is some risk that changing rules could continue to limit what you can see or do while you are overseas. Even if others aren’t, consider masking when you are indoors in public spaces. Reassess if you have an absolute need to get back to the U.S. on your scheduled return date. If you have an elder care situation, for example, the risk of being delayed on your return might be a reason to postpone your trip. But if you can work from an international destination if you or a family member test positive, then think of this as part of life’s adventure.
My current recommendations for group travel through January: With a larger group of travelers, the issues are more complex. Consider what happens if one person in the group tests positive 24 hours before return to the U.S. With Omicron spreading, it is likely that more than one person will have COVID, and it is possible the full group may be required to quarantine. If you are a group coordinator, assess the financial and logistical impact of what that means if the entire group needs to stay behind. Also, because groups require longer lead times to plan — and potentially cancel — it is clear that decisions may need to be made soon for February and beyond.
The situation is fluid and my recommendations will certainly evolve over time. I will continue to provide updates at key times moving forward and am happy to discuss with you if you have questions. Also, if you found this assessment helpful, please share with others.