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Safe To Travel Yet? Not That I Can See

Yesterday, 9 countries reported over 100 new deaths, (from most to fewest): USA, South Korea, Russia, Germany, Brazil, UK, Italy, France and Hong Kong. The new wave is already causing big spikes of daily new cases in South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Vietnam, Australia and Japan.

Even as craven U.S. politicians throw precaution to the wind-- in reaction to the loud, shrill screeching of assholes-- the NY Times this morning warned readers not to throw away their masks. "The next wave of Covid-19 is coming, and in some parts of the United States, it’s already here. Are you ready? The culprit this time is BA.2, a subvariant of the highly infectious Omicron variant. Nobody knows for sure how much havoc it will cause, but BA.2 has already led to a surge of cases in Europe and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the United States and around the world. Researchers are tracking an uptick in cases in the United States, and they’ve detected a rise in the viral particles recovered from nearly 150 wastewater-surveillance sites. Because people can shed the coronavirus even if they never develop symptoms, pieces of the virus collected in wastewater can serve as advance warning several days before official case counts rise, said Bronwyn MacInnis, who directs pathogen genomic surveillance at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Over the past two weeks, Dr. MacInnis’s group has seen a rapid increase in levels of the BA.2 subvariant in the Northeast."

[V]ariables could turn the BA.2 wave into a more damaging surge. One concern is that less than 70 percent of Americans over 65 have had a first booster shot, leaving a large group vulnerable, said Dr. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif. And for many people who got their booster shots in the fall, immune protection may be waning. Unvaccinated people who are counting on natural immunity from a previous infection by a different variant should know that BA.2 can easily sidestep those fading immune defenses.
And then there’s the question of whether pandemic fatigue will prevent some people from taking reasonable precautions, like wearing masks and social distancing, when Covid numbers start to rise in their area.
“We know how to manage it,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, a professor and the chair of the medicine department at the University of California, San Francisco. “But the big caveat will be that there are lots of parts of the country that will not go back into careful mode. It’s wishful thinking to believe we’re going to stay in a situation as good as we are in now.”

Everyone I know is so sick and tired on the pandemic restrictions that they're letting their guards down. Restaurants are packed again-- and, mostly, I'm not seeing them check for vaccine status any longer. I'm going to my first in-person political event today (although it's outdoors and masks are "recommended.") And people are flyings again. Some airlines no longer require masks, including British Air, KLM and Virgin Atlantic. Two of my friends are on holiday in Portugal; Roland is in Mexico and tells me every few days that we should go to Indonesia, Cambodia or Thailand this summer.

Reporting for the NY Times this morning, Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno wrote that Asian countries are opening up to tourists again, although Japan, whose economy is not dependent on tourism, is still, smartly, turning tourists away. Japan, they wrote, "sealed its borders to most foreign travelers early in the pandemic and has only recently begun to allow a slow drip of students and business people to return-- a sharp contrast to most of its Asian neighbors who, with the major exception of China, have substantially eased their travel restrictions... The reasons are clear: As much of the rest of the world has decided to pretend the pandemic is over, Japanese politicians and the public have maintained a more cautious approach. While there is no definitive evidence that the border controls have kept case numbers low, they have been enormously popular with people at home. More than 65 percent of respondents in a recent poll by the public broadcaster NHK approved of the measures or felt they should be strengthened. And with an important parliamentary election coming up in July, the country’s political leadership is unlikely to do anything that might endanger their party’s chances of winning a comfortable majority, i.e. risking a rise in coronavirus cases by reopening the country to tourism."

They reported that "Japan has had much more success fighting the pandemic than virtually all other wealthy nations, managing to keep infection numbers and overall death rates comparatively low without resorting to the hard lockdowns seen in some other countries... It’s unclear what accounts for Japan’s success in fighting the virus. Most experts credit the public’s embrace of public health recommendations along with high vaccination rates-- nearly 80 percent of the population has received at least two shots and more than 40 percent have three. But other, sometimes eccentric, theories have also been tossed around, ranging from Japan’s preference for bowing over handshakes to hardier genetics. Whatever the real reason, the public perception is that the restrictions on foreigners have been highly effective."

In recent months countries across Southeast Asia have been busy loosening restraints on international tourism, arguing that their relatively high vaccination rates and their determination to live safely with the virus and resuscitate their moribund tourism sectors warranted a broad resumption of unfettered travel.
Of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations only three-- Brunei, Laos and Myanmar-- have clung to stringent restrictions on international arrivals. The rest have incrementally shed layers of travel constraints, rolling back quarantine and testing requirements for visitors, starting with Thailand’s Phuket “sandbox” experiment in July 2021 which limited travelers to that heavily touristed island. And in recent weeks, some countries seem to be competing to see who can make travel the most hassle-free for fully vaccinated foreigners.
South Korea, too, is joining the reopening trend, announcing on March 11 that it would exempt vaccinated visitors from a seven-day quarantine starting April 1.
But perhaps the biggest outlier is China. Its zero-Covid strategy has led it to effectively shut its borders, making itself almost inaccessible to tourists and cutting off the region’s biggest single source of tourists.
In comparison to that, Japan’s position is liberal: It is currently allowing 7,000 people to enter the country each day, a number that includes students, business travelers, residents and Japanese nationals. (It is expected to raise the limit to 10,000 by mid-April.)
Entry requirements remain stiff for most travelers. If you can manage to get a visa, you will need to receive a negative Covid test 72 hours before departure and to be tested again at the airport upon arrival.
Whether or not you will be required to quarantine depends both on where you are traveling from and your vaccination status. Select foreign nationals-- including Americans-- who can prove that they have received three shots and get a negative test at the airport in Japan are free to travel on. Everyone else will have to deal with some level of quarantine, either at home or in a hotel on the government’s dime.

So, I'm going to the Kevin de León fundraiser in Glendale today-- primarily because Kevin called personally and asked me to come-- but if I see people without masks, I'll leave fast. And as far as Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand... not this summer. The conference I was planning to go to in Berlin in June has been postponed indefinitely-- a combination of the Russian attack on Ukraine and a massive uptick in COVID in Germany.

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