Sea-Tac Airport sees busiest travel day of Thanksgiving as omicron variant looms

KING COUNTY, Wash. — As of Sunday, the omicron variant of COVID-19 has not been detected in the United States.

But local health experts believe it’s just a matter of time.

“The chances are quite high that the virus – that the variant, the omicron variant is already here in our shores, and that there already is community spread happening, that we just haven’t detected yet,” said Dan Bustillos with the School of Nursing and Health Studies at the University of Washington Bothell.

Globally, the variant is spreading quickly and has already been identified in at least 13 countries.

Two cases were reported in Ottawa on Sunday.

Officials believe those cases are tied to Zimbabwe, one of the initial countries where the variant was detected.

On Monday, the U.S. will bar entry to those from Zimbabwe, South Africa and six other African countries.

U.S. citizens will be exempt from this travel restriction.

Bustillos suggested that such “piece-meal” restrictions — which limit travel from some countries where the variant is detected but not all — could do more harm than good, especially to the economy and the morale of travelers.

“It’s nerve-wracking when you’re out of the country and you find out that a new variant has emerged,” said Rebecca Spzer, who returned to Seattle from Calgary on Sunday.

Spzer reminded other international travelers that current testing requirements and travel protocols are time-consuming and believes those expectations should be managed with the spread of a new variant.

“You have to watch what the situation is because at any given moment because it’s changing really quickly,” Spzer said.

Bustillos said that recent studies have shown that travel restrictions proved effective early in the pandemic, but that once the virus spread in the U.S., closing borders to international travelers wasn’t as effective.

Bustillos said a better way to prevent the rapid spread of this variant, and potentially future variants, is to increase vaccine access to developing countries.

Sea-Tac Airport does not have any direct flights to South Africa or any of the countries facing the new travel restrictions.

An airport official told KIRO 7 that Customs and Border Protection officials will monitor travelers with connecting flights to southern Africa.

On Sunday, more than 167,000 passengers passed through Sea-Tac Airport, proving to be the busiest travel day of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Monday is also expected to be quite busy, with roughly 44,000 passengers departing Sea-Tac, according to a TSA official.