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CDC expanding surveillance at 4 major US airports to look for Omicron

<i>Spencer Platt/Getty Images</i><br/>Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30 in Newark
Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30 in Newark

By CNN Staff

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expanding surveillance at four major international airports to keep an eye out for the Omicron variant of coronavirus in travelers, the agency’s director said Tuesday.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a White House Covid-19 briefing that the CDC is expanding surveillance with XpresCheck, a testing service at airport terminals, to the following four places:

— Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
— John F. Kennedy International Airport
— Newark Liberty International Airport
— San Francisco International Airport

She noted they are four of the busiest international airports in the country.

The Biden administration imposed new restrictions on travel from eight southern African countries, including South Africa, late last week. Omicron was first reported by South African health authorities.

But Delta Air Lines, with headquarters and major operations in Atlanta, said it plans to continue its Atlanta-Johannesburg flights.

United Airlines also said it does not plan to scale back service between Newark and Johannesburg and will restart its route to Cape Town, also in South Africa, next week as planned.

This new effort is actually an expansion of a biosurveillance program first launched in September that provided testing for travelers arriving from India at JFK, Newark and San Francisco, according to XpresSpa Group, the parent company of XpresCheck.

Testing ‘closer to the time of flights’

With the emergence of the Omicron variant, safety is on would-be air travelers minds.

“CDC is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible,” Walensky said.

That includes “critical partner testing closer to the time of flights and considerations around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantine,” she said.

Additionally, top US government officials are currently considering requiring everyone who enters the United States to be tested the day before their flight and having all travelers — including US citizens and permanent residents — test again after returning home, regardless of vaccination status, sources familiar with the thinking tell CNN.

Officials were deliberating Tuesday night and no final decisions have been made, but they could be announced as soon as this week. Currently, vaccinated travelers are required to test three days before their departure. This move under consideration would shorten that timeline to one day.

Regarding the expanded surveillance, “this program allows for increased Covid testing for specific international arrivals,” Walensky said, “increasing our capacity to identify those with Covid-19 on arrival to the United States and enhancing our surveillance for the Omicron variant.”

She said the CDC is also working with the airlines “to collect passenger information that can be used by CDC and local public health jurisdictions to enhance contact tracing and post-arrival follow-up should a case be identified in a traveler.”

Coordinating locally and globally

The CDC is keeping in close touch with state and local health officials, she said.

“We are holding regular, even daily calls, with local county and state health officials and our public health partners. These calls include state, county and city health officials, state epidemiologists, laboratory directors and partners from public health organizations,” Walensky said.

“And we are continuously working closely with our public health partners, both here in America and around the world.”

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Top image: Travelers arrive for flights at Newark Liberty International Airport on November 30, 2021 in Newark, New Jersey. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images) CNN’s Maggie Fox, Kaitlan Collins and Forrest Brown contributed to this report.

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