Many Latin American travelers shut out from visiting U.S. by new vaccine policy

As soon as Covid-19 vaccines were available in Guatemala for her age group, Ilse Samoyoa stood in line with hundreds of other people for nine hours to have her shot.

Samoyoa, 56, never thought that the Sputnik vaccine she got in June would at some point prevent her from traveling to the United States

For three decades, Samoyoa, a transportation company administrator, traveled back and forth between Guatemala and the United States on vacation and visiting his family in Miami and Los Angeles. She was last here in November 2020.

“I am sad and worried about this decision,” said Samoyoa, who had to cancel a trip she had booked for next Monday. “It was the first vaccine to arrive in Guatemala and the government encouraged us to take it.”

For many in Europe, where travel has been banned since the beginning of the pandemic, the easing of U.S. travel restrictions on those vaccinated with World Health Organization-approved vaccinations is a delight – as can be seen in recent stories and pictures from happy reunion. The travel ban from 33 countries affected EU members, China, Iran and India.

But for Samoyoa and others who had traveled back and forth during the pandemic from Latin America, where there was no travel ban, the policy change announced by the US this week left them out. Many countries in the region have bought millions of doses of the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine and others that have not yet been approved by the WHO.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only six vaccines have been approved by the WHO: those from Pfizer, Moderna, Jansen, AstraZeneca, Sinovac, and Sinopharm. The unapproved ones are Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CanSico, and Cuba’s Abdala, Soberana 02, and Soberana Plus. In many countries, people cannot choose the vaccine they are given and are dependent on what the government is distributing.

The shift in travel requirements comes just before the holiday season when many people travel to be with loved ones.

Cuba, which has vaccinated most of its population with home-grown vaccines, will be hit hard. It is expected to ease some of its strict Covid restrictions on Monday, and while US airlines prepare with daily flights to and from Havana, Cubans cannot board flights to the US

Countries like Venezuela have used both the Sputnik and Cuban vaccines. Venezuela started recently Vaccinate children aged 2 to 11 with the Cuban Soberana 2 vaccine.

The policy change means the US has reopened land borders with Mexico and Canada, where much of the travel is by land. Land crossings had been closed to “insignificant” traffic during the entire pandemic.

But Mexico vaccinated millions of people with the Russian and Chinese vaccines. Mexico received 19.1 million doses of the Russian vaccine, according to the Russian state intelligence service Tass. For fear that millions of Mexicans could be banned from traveling to the United States, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said last month at a press conference: “The WHO must act right, without political or ideological tendencies and stick to science.”

Under the new rules, travelers who have been fully vaccinated can enter the United States if they can prove that they have been vaccinated with one of the WHO-approved vaccines. They must also show negative coronavirus tests taken within three days of their flights. Children under the age of 18 are exempt from vaccination, but must take Covid tests within 24 hours of their departure.

The WHO has yet to approve Sputnik, CanSico and the Cuban vaccines.

Samoyoa in Guatemala said she regretted the US decision and didn’t know when to come back. “I have extended my 10-year visa and am wondering when I can use it,” she said.

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