New Omicron travel ban on South Africa impacting local families

South Africa
Posted at 11:28 PM, Nov 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-30 00:06:17-05

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – There is a renewed urgency to vaccinate more people from COVID-19 as the Omicron variant emerges.

As the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) closely monitors the Omicron variant, so are those who have loved ones in South Africa.

Esther Seep was on a safari in South Africa in October visiting family in her hometown. Before the trip, it had been five years since seeing her family. Seep said she decided to go home after talks about another COVID wave could be on the horizon.

She couldn’t have known that weeks later after arriving back in the U.S., the southernmost country would have travel restrictions.

“I thought that I’d better go before things change again, and I’m glad I did,” said Seep. “That gave me a peace of mind that I actually went back to go see them, because who knows how long it will be before I can see them again or that they can come here?"

On Monday, the U.S. put a travel ban in place for eight South African nations and five neighboring countries. This comes after COVID-19’s newest variant, Omicron, continues to quickly spread in South Africa and is now confirmed in at least 17 countries, including Canada.

Although not much is known about the new strain, it’s believed to be highly transmissible and has dozens of concerning mutations.

Seep, who was living in Newport News, said she now worries for her parents back home who are in their 70s.

Related: UVA infectious disease expert discusses what you need to know about Omicron variant

“I am concerned because they are older and they don’t know if the vaccine that they did get will cover the new one,” she said. “They take precautions; they have to wear their mask. When we were there, they’re really strict about spraying, hand sanitize your hands before you walk into shop and you have to wear your mask all time. I think just by doing that I think they feel safer and that’s really all they can do.”

VDH is now urging all eligible Virginians to get their COVID shot and booster if they haven’t already.

Meantime, Seep is hoping the borders won’t stay closed for too long, so that she can see her family more often and more visitors can help the country thrive.

“You have the virus obviously in other countries too so why only shut those few countries down?” Seep said. “You can travel so easily these days and quick, the virus travels before you can even lock any country down. It’s just South Africa that loses out because they’re struggling economically already. They have a 40% unemployment rate, and with always shutting things down, it’s just hard, especially with small businesses that’s always getting shut down and then they don’t make it. It’s sad. They need the tourists to come.”

While there are no reported cases of the omicron variant in the U.S., health experts say it’s just a matter of time before we do see it here.

The white house said Monday all three COVID vaccine makers are ready to tweak their formulas if needed.