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CDC Updates Restrictions for Travelers from China and Hong Kong

The requirement for incoming travelers to present a negative test result is expected to be dropped as early as this Friday

March 9, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Spratt / Unsplash

When entering the country, the U.S. will drop the requirement that travelers from China and Hong Kong present negative COVID tests.  This new update comes two months after it imposed the restrictions in response to a surge in cases in China and the lack of transparency about the outbreak from Beijing.

The planned relaxation of travel restrictions was first reported by The Washington Post based on conversations with three anonymous officials but hasn’t been confirmed by the White House.

Since January 5, American health officials have required all travelers from China and Hong Kong to show negative COVID tests before flying to the U.S. The requirement was introduced after China abandoned its long-standing and controversial “zero COVID” policy triggering a wave of infections in the country.

Photo: Courtesy of Yolanda Suen / Unsplash

U.S. officials said at the time that testing travelers was necessary because China wasn’t transparent about the outbreak. External epidemiologists had been left to estimate its scale and severity based on social media posts and reports of overwhelmed hospitals and morgues.

Chinese officials initially maintained just 37 deaths were linked to the surge, although they later revised that figure to 60,000 in mid-January. British health analytics firm Airfinity projected that the toll was far higher, with deaths likely peaking at 36,000 per day on January 26.

China also wasn’t sharing genome sequencing information about the virus, and U.S. officials expressed worry that the mass circulation of the virus in the country might lead to the emergence of new variants. In response, the CDC expanded its genomic surveillance at several key U.S. airports, collecting voluntary samples from passengers aboard hundreds of inbound flights from China and testing wastewater from aircraft.

“We know these measures [the testing requirement and the genomic surveillance] will not eliminate all risk or completely prevent people who are infected from entering the United States,” a federal health official said. But “they will help limit the number of infected people and provide us an early warning about new variants.”

Photo: Airport queue in Guagzhou, China. Courtesy of Hiurich Granja / Unsplash

Other countries, including the U.K., Italy, France, South Korea, and India, implemented similar testing requirements for arrivals from China. The Asian country condemned the restrictions on travelers as “discriminatory” and vowed to take “countermeasures” in response.

Meanwhile, some U.S. experts questioned the utility of the testing, warning that the virus was already surging at home, driven by a contagious and fast-spreading Omicron sub-variant.

Now two months later, U.S. officials say they’re reassured by indications that both COVID infections and deaths are on the wane in China and confident enough to drop the testing requirements from Friday. Moreover, they believe most of China’s 1.4 billion people were infected in the recent wave.

However, the sources added the U.S. would continue to monitor Covid cases in China, and the expanded genomic testing would continue.

The U.S. continues to require that all air arrivals who aren’t citizens or permanent residents are fully vaccinated before entering the country.