U.S. Moves to Restrict Travel From India as Virus Infections and Deaths Surge

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WASHINGTON — The White House, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced Friday that it would begin restricting travel from India to the United States next week, a major new test of the Biden administration’s pandemic response.

The decision was one of the most significant steps yet taken by the White House in response to the crush of new infections in India, where over 3,000 people are dying each day as citizens gasp for air on the streets. The country recorded almost 400,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday alone.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the policy would go into effect on Tuesday. The travel restrictions will not apply to citizens or lawful permanent residents of the United States, their spouses or minor children or siblings, or to the parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents who are under 21.

The surge of the virus in India has posed a new challenge for Mr. Biden’s pandemic response. President Donald J. Trump’s decision to issue restrictions on travel from China early in the pandemic followed days of fierce debate among national security and public health officials, and was heavily criticized by Democrats and public health experts, who worried that the decision would hinder the nascent global response to the new threat.

In retrospect, federal health officials say the decision was one of the best that Mr. Trump made in the early weeks of the crisis. But the restrictions proved porous. Tens of thousands of people still arrived in the United States on direct flights from China in the two months after Mr. Trump imposed the limits. Ron Klain, now President Biden’s chief of staff, criticized the move as an ineffectual “Band-Aid.”

And the panicked flight of Americans from Europe ahead of a travel ban that Mr. Trump then imposed on the continent overwhelmed airports in the United States and most likely brought still more infections.

The Biden administration has to avoid a repeat of those problems while it tries to rush humanitarian aid to a country that it counts as an ally.

The India travel restrictions may prove to be as porous as the China order. Beyond Americans and lawful permanent residents, exemptions include students, some academics, journalists, fiancés and immigrants. People may also travel for humanitarian purposes, public health, national security or to support critical infrastructure.

But Mr. Biden has advantages over his predecessor, including widespread testing and vaccines. People who are exempt from the ban must still abide by the guidance the United States has already put in place for international travelers, including a negative test for the virus before traveling and again upon entering the country from India, and they must quarantine if they are not vaccinated.

Other countries, including Britain, Germany and Italy, have instituted similar restrictions on travel from India. Early in his presidency, Mr. Biden barred travel by noncitizens into the United States from South Africa because of concerns about a coronavirus variant spreading in that country, and he extended similar bans imposed by Mr. Trump on travel from Brazil and some European countries.

One senior Biden administration official said Friday that representatives from the National Security Council as well as public health officials in the administration had debated the India move in recent days, though not contentiously. It was recommended by Mr. Biden’s Covid-19 response team, medical experts and national security aides across the federal government.

Another senior official familiar with the decision said that it rested heavily on uncertainty over a homegrown variant spreading in India known as B.1.617. Doctors and news reports have cited anecdotal — but inconclusive — evidence to suggest that it is driving the country’s outbreak.

As federal health officials, including Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the C.D.C. director, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, discussed the possible move in recent days with White House officials, they emphasized that there was little known about how coronavirus vaccines respond to that variant.

One official said the travel restrictions could be modified once there was more data on vaccine response.

The move comes amid a deceleration in American vaccination rates that has complicated the nation’s quest to protect itself. Even with significant momentum in the government’s vaccination campaign — the White House announced on Friday that 100 million people in the United States had been fully vaccinated — a majority of American adults are still not considered fully protected against the virus.

And in a sign that the government does not want to ease restrictions too quickly, the Transportation Security Administration on Friday extended mandates for mask-wearing on airplanes and public transit through Sept. 13.

Even as cases have ebbed in the United States, the virus has raged through India, leading to mass cremations that run through the night. Under intense pressure to do more to help the ailing nation, the White House announced this week a slate of assistance measures, including sending vaccine-making materials, rapid tests and a tranche of the antiviral drug remdesivir, which received Food and Drug Administration approval last year for treating Covid-19.

In the past 24 hours, military cargo planes from the United States delivered to India small oxygen cylinders, large oxygen cylinders, regulators, pulse oximeters, about 184,000 rapid tests, and about 84,000 N-95 masks, Ms. Psaki said on Friday.

“There is no question that it is a great tragedy, in terms of the loss of life,” Vice President Kamala Harris, who is of Indian descent, told reporters on Friday in Cincinnati. “And as I have said before, and I will say again, we as a country have made a commitment to the people of India to support them.”

On Monday, the Biden administration said that it intended to make available to other countries up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine — which has not yet been cleared for use in the United States — so long as federal regulators deemed the doses safe. The announcement came after Mr. Biden spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and the two pledged to “work closely together in the fight against Covid-19.”

Several Indian states said this week that they could not fulfill the government’s directive to expand vaccinations to all adults beginning on Saturday because they lacked doses. Only a small fraction of the country has been fully vaccinated.

Dr. Luciana Borio, the former director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, said that if the United States had more effective systems for quarantining travelers and was further into its vaccination campaign, travel restrictions like the ones announced on Friday would not be as necessary.

“You can’t battle a pandemic with travel restrictions, unfortunately, which makes it so important to share vaccines with the world and implement public health measures before the virus gets to our shores,” she said.

Experts have long recommended against restricting travel during outbreaks, arguing that it is often ineffective and can limit the movements of doctors and other health professionals trying to contain the disease.

The decision on Friday comes under drastically different circumstances than those seen in the early weeks of the public health crisis.

Health officials have a much more sophisticated understanding of how the virus spreads. Coronavirus tests, which were in short supply last year when Mr. Trump issued travel restrictions, are widely available, with results often returned quickly. And three highly protective vaccines are in broad circulation. Even as health officials grapple with limited knowledge of the homegrown virus variant in India, those vaccines appear to be effective against other variants.

Months ago, India appeared to be escaping the kind of calamity it is now experiencing. After an initial lockdown, the country did not see an explosion in new cases and deaths comparable to those in other countries. But after the early restrictions were lifted, many Indians adopted a more relaxed approach to virus restrictions. Large gatherings, including political rallies and religious festivals, resumed and drew millions of people.

Hospitals in India are now facing dire shortages of beds, while relatives of the sick have pleaded on social media for access to them, as well as for oxygen and medicine. Many Indians say they do not know if they are infected with the coronavirus because overwhelmed labs have stopped processing tests. One in five tests are coming back positive, but experts fear the true toll is much higher.

There is some debate over how to explain the wave of virus cases, including which variant might be most responsible. Researchers say that data so far points to a variant that has spread widely in Britain and in the United States, B.1.1.7, as a significant factor in the country’s suffering.

Scientists say that different variants seem to dominate specific parts of India. The B.1.617 variant has been detected in a large number of samples from the central state of Maharashtra, while the B.1.1.7 variant is rising quickly in New Delhi.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Linda Qiu contributed reporting.

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