Haiti, Nicaragua get U.S. exemption from Covid travel rule

A man donning a Haitian flag tattoo is injected with his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Hospital University of Peace, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Saturday, July 17, 2021. Healthcare workers and senior citizens were the first people vaccinated on Friday in Haiti as part of a test run after the country recently received a shipment of doses from the United Nations.

AP

Most foreign nationals from Latin America and the Caribbean who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will not be allowed to enter the United States by air under stricter travel guidelines that will come into effect on Nov. 8.

The new vaccination and testing requirements for international travelers were signed by President Joe Biden a week ago. They include exemptions for non-tourists from Haiti and Nicaragua, where vaccination rates are low, but most U.S. visa holders, which include those with business and tourism visas, will still need to show proof of vaccination to enter the U.S.

Also affected by the new U.S. travel rules: visitors from Cuba, where two homegrown vaccines, Soberana and Abdala, have not been approved by the World Health Organization, as well as those elsewhere in the region who have been inoculated with Russia’s Sputnik vaccine.

The new U.S. guidelines require individuals to receive vaccines from the WHO’s approved list, even if they have not been approved by the U.S.

“This policy prioritizes public health, protecting U.S. citizens and residents as well as those who come to visit us,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “Because it puts public health first, exceptions to this policy will be extremely limited, including children under 18 and certain individuals in countries where vaccines are not yet readily accessible.”

Non-tourists from nearly 50 countries, including Haiti and Nicaragua, where the vaccination rate is less than 10%, are among those that have been given an exemption.

In July, Haiti became the last country in the Americas to receive vaccines after the Biden administration shipped 500,000 doses of Moderna shots to Port-au-Prince a week after the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and weeks after the death of the country’s high court leader from a COVID-19 related illness.

As of Sunday, the Haiti Ministry of Health reported that 135,256 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine had been administered. Of these, 39,335 were second doses, leaving Haiti with less than 1% of its population vaccinated. With the vaccines expiring, the Haitian Ministry of Health decided to redeploy 250,000 doses to Honduras, with the help of the Pan American Health Organization, to avoid vaccine wastage, the regional body said.

With vaccine skepticism and the lack of money for vaccine awareness campaigns hampering rollout, the Pan American Health Organization said it will be sending 150,000 one-shot Johnson and Johnson doses to inoculate health workers and first responders in the areas affected by the recent earthquake that devastated Haiti’s southern peninsula, in hopes of immunizing more Haitians against the deadly pandemic.

As for Nicaragua, PAHO said it has received 2,407,270 doses via the U.N.-backed vaccine-sharing program known as COVAX. According to the data transmitted by the Nicaragua Ministry of Health to PAHO, the country administered a total of 1,540,217 doses as of Oct. 29 but to date only 414,670 persons are considered to be fully vaccinated.

The exemption for Haiti and Nicaragua does not cover those with business and tourism visas, B1 or B2, respectively. They will still need to show proof of vaccination and a COVID-19 test taken within three days in order to board a flight, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

It will be up to airlines to determine if foreign travelers meet the U.S. vaccination requirement for traveling prior to boarding U.S.-bound flights, including verifying that the last dose was given at least two weeks prior to the date of travel.

After barring visitors form 33 countries including India, China and most of Europe, even if they were fully vaccinated, the White House announced in September that it would be tightening requirements for U.S.-bound travelers, who were required to present a negative viral COVID test result within 72 hours of travel regardless of whether they were vaccinated or not.

Now the new guidelines require all U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents as well as visitors to show proof of vaccination and be tested three days before travel. Unvaccinated Americans and permanent resident holders who travel will need to present a negative COVID test a day before re-entering the U.S., while unvaccinated foreign nationals will only be allowed in under limited circumstances.

The CDC also is now required to collect phone numbers, email and a U.S. address from all international air passengers, as part of new contact-tracing rules. The airlines must retain the information for 30 days in order to follow up with travelers in case someone is exposed to COVID-19.

El Nuevo Herald Cuba/U.S.-Latin American policy reporter Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.

This story was originally published November 2, 2021 5:54 PM.

Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.