COVID-19 crisis prompts U.S. to restrict travel from India

Passengers arriving at San Francisco International Airport Friday for their direct flight to Delhi said they'd heard about the new U.S. restrictions on travel from India. Many said it will have a big impact on spring and summer travel plans.

"One of my friends' parents had to cancel their flights because of the current travel ban," said one San Francisco woman who was seeing her mother off on the Delhi flight.

President Biden issued the proclamation, which takes effect Tuesday May 4th, saying health experts with the Centers for Disease Control and national security advisors are concerned about the circulation of COVID-19 variants in India, which may be driving the humanitarian crisis that saw nearly 400,000 cases in India Friday.

"The CDC advises, based on work by public health and scientific experts, that these variants have characteristics of concern, which may make them more easily transmitted and have the potential for reduced protection afforded by some vaccines," the Biden proclamation stated.

Under the travel restrictions, anyone who has traveled in India 14 days before trying to enter the U.S. will be turned away.

There will be exemptions for U.S. citizens and residents who would be allowed entry, along with their immediate family members, members of the U.S. military, and certain visitors on official business.

"We are truly experiencing a crisis with our friends and family," said Dr. Monica Gandhi, a UCSF professor of infectious diseases who says she is hearing daily from relatives in India about the lack of medical supplies and vaccines.

Dr. Gandhi says closing the border, though, will not solve the problem.

"The variants, they are likely already here and closing the borders, aren't going to prevent that variant, from being here," said Dr. Gandhi, "What will prevent the U.S. from having the same experience as India is our ongoing vaccination program and our developing immunity in our population."

Dr. Gandhi also says India is experiencing a severe shortage of vaccine doses.

"Right now, India is at 10% first dose. That is simply not enough to bring down cases. It's not fast enough. They don't have enough vaccine," said Dr. Gandhi.

She says two factors that could increase supplies in India.

"What we're talking about right now is the question of global vaccine equity, and there are two ways to make this happen right now in India," said Dr. Gandhi, "One is something that's very actively being debated by the Biden administration which is the waving of patents on mRNA vaccine so that immediately these lifesaving mRNA vaccines can be made in country."

She says another quick boost would be if more countries with excess vaccine doses donate or lend India those doses.

Some Indian Americans such as Mohammed Nadeem from the Muslim Community Center in the Bay Area, say there is some hope.

"I'm hoping and praying that with the help from not just the United States but also from neighboring countries, the Middle East and other countries who are stepping up to send oxygen and doctors and nurses to India," said Nadeem, "I'm hoping and praying that this will be just a few weeks or days, not months."

The Biden administration says it will monitor the situation in India very closely and get recommendations from the Secretary of Health and Human Services every month to determine whether to continue or end the travel restrictions.