Late last year, news broke of the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant reaching the United States, specifically Colorado. Much like last March, when the news was reported that the coronavirus had arrived in the U.S., panic and uncertainty quickly spread throughout the country. Now, nearly a month after the initial detection of the novel variant, over 600 domestic cases of B.1.1.7 have been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 13 cases are here in Washtenaw County. 

The county health department’s response to this: all University of Michigan students currently residing in Ann Arbor should “stay in place,” including not traveling within or out of the county, for two weeks. The Biden administration has also taken action, deploying country-wide travel restrictions on those coming from countries that are heavily populated with new and potentially dangerous variants, including Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom and South Africa. However, there is a problematic exception to that ban: American citizens are still welcome back, even if they have traveled to those destinations. 

Although likely well-intentioned, these travel restrictions are heavily flawed in their design. 

As we have seen an unfortunate number of times — over 26 million, to be exact — over the last few months, the virus does not care one bit about citizenship. Traveling to a location where the virus, especially a highly contagious variant of it, is rampant (or even just present) is a near-perfect recipe for contracting it. Thus, excluding those that have traveled to these countries from travel restrictions simply because their legal documents read “U.S. citizen” is illogical. These Americans can and likely will contract the disease, too. 

Although not a perfect analogy, when Washtenaw County announced its stay-at-home recommendation last week, they did not say Ann Arbor citizens could be excused, as doing so would be ineffective. The same should be expected from U.S. citizens on both a larger and more exhaustive scale. A strict quarantine, not simply an advisory to do so, should be mandatory for these individuals should they wish to return. 

The U.S. has been struggling with this concept since well before President Joe Biden took office. Look back to Thanksgiving or Christmas, only a few months ago, for example. Despite repeated advisories from the CDC to avoid travel, strict restrictions were not enacted and consequently, Americans traveled during the holidays in mass numbers. In the days and weeks following Thanksgiving this year, daily hospitalizations reached over 100,000 and daily deaths were at about 3,000. Experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, note that this was likely a direct result of the influx of travel around the holiday. 

What is potentially even more troubling about this data is that most of the holiday travel was domestic. International travel thus proposes a whole new concern, if those other countries are experiencing problems with increased cases due to the novel variant. Travel for anyone during a pandemic will inevitably lead to a distribution of cases, including if it is international. 

This evaluation is not to say that Biden and his administration are not on the right track, but rather that they need to go full force with the ban, or at the very least with the conditions they impose on returning. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to understand the need for harsh limitations, announcing earlier this week a much stricter set of restrictions. Upon arrival, travelers to our neighbor to the north must begin quarantine in a hotel, in addition to adhering to protocols for in-airport and pre-boarding PCR testing. Additionally, the destinations within the country for international travel have been restricted to four cities, in attempts to limit the points of entry for those with the virus. The U.S. should do the same, plain and simple.

Australia is even stricter. Among other policies, most notably, all arrivals to the country have a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine. After recording their first case in months this Sunday, the country promptly put the city of Perth under a comprehensive lockdown. Of course one must account for population differences but, for perspective, the U.S. is averaging at least 100,000 cases daily. 

Imposing similarly strict travel restrictions, especially in the wake of a concerning new virus variant, could dwindle that figure significantly. It seems that for all countries that enact stricter policies like these, cases seem to be consistently down — I doubt this is coincidental. 

Enacting more comprehensive policies is going to anger a lot of people. The pandemic has been tiring, fatal and strenuous and the last thing many want, especially those who have yet to grapple with or see the severity of the virus themselves, is more or stricter restrictions. 

Unfortunately, though, until vaccines are fully distributed, restrictions are needed. Biden and his team cannot skimp out on how they impose them. Otherwise, we could soon be seeing yet another resurgence, this time with variants that could be doing more damage than the first one. 

John Tumpowsky can be reached at jgtump@umich.edu.

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