Fauci suggests air travel vaccine mandate as Omicron grounds U.S. flights

By Gabriella Borter and Aishwarya Nair

(Reuters) -Skyrocketing COVID-19 cases hobbled U.S. airline staff on Monday, causing hundreds of flight cancellations, and prompted the country’s top infectious disease expert to suggest the government consider a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel.

Monday’s air travel woes capped a glum Christmas weekend for thousands of stranded passengers waiting in airport queues and on customer service phone lines to re-book flights, often days after originally planned.

Rising infections from the Omicron variant forced airlines to cancel flights as pilots and cabin crew fell sick and needed to quarantine.

A total 1,130 flights into, within or out of the United States were canceled by Monday afternoon, according to the flight tracking website flightaware.com. Airlines said the virus and bad weather both were to blame.

The average number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has risen 55% to over 205,000 per day over the last seven days, according to a Reuters tally.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top U.S. infectious disease expert, on Monday recommended the federal government consider a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel.

“That is just another one of the requirements that I think is reasonable to consider,” Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official and a member of the White House COVID-19 response team, told MSNBC in an interview.

U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters on Monday, declined to say whether he endorsed a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel.

He did say he was open to reducing quarantine times for other Americans after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week said healthcare workers could isolate for seven instead of 10 days.

In another instance of Omicron-induced travel misery, the CDC said on Monday it was investigating 68 cruise ships after reports of COVID-19 cases on board.


On Monday, snowy weather in the Pacific Northwest was also part of the reason for more than 90 canceled flights that were due to land at Seattle-Tacoma Airport.

A representative for Alaska Airlines, which canceled more than 140 flights on Monday due partly to snowy conditions in Seattle, told a passenger on Twitter that it would be hours before someone from customer service could speak by phone, signaling the extent to which airline phone lines were overwhelmed with frustrated passengers.

“The hold time is about 7 hours. I am so sorry,” Alaska Airlines wrote on Twitter in response to a customer complaint.

Harley Garner, a 27-year-old creative strategist from Portland, and his brother from Seattle were staying with their parents in Pahrump, Nevada, over the holidays and had planned to fly home on Sunday evening. Both brothers’ respective flights -to Portland via Alaska Airlines and to Seattle via Allegiant Airlines – were canceled on Sunday afternoon. Both managed to book seats on later flights – Garner’s brother got one late Sunday night, and Garner booked one for 6 a.m. on Monday.

Then their second flights were canceled. They decided to drive and got on the road shortly after 3 a.m. on Monday. Garner’s father was driving his sons to Bakersfield, California, where they planned to rent a car and then drive up to Portland and Seattle, totaling some 17 hours on the road.

Garner said the most frustrating part of the travel nightmare, which Alaska Airlines said was weather-related, although Portland was not experiencing severe weather on Monday, was the last-minute notification of cancellations.

“If you know a plane isn’t going to leave one place and that’s a connector flight, then just cancel that flight,” he said. “Don’t play these games like you don’t know that there’s a staff shortage because of the coronavirus.”

Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines said on Monday that their cancellations were due to weather. Delta Airlines said in a statement that its 200 Monday cancellations were due to weather and the Omicron variant. JetBlue said crew shortages were behind its dozens of Monday flight cancellations.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Aishwarya Nair, Jonathan Allen and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Dan Grebler and Howard Goller)

Factbox: Latest on the spread of coronavirus around the world

Reuters) – The alarm over the coronavirus intensified and governments from Ireland to Italy unveiled measures to try to slow the spread of a disease that has infected more than 134,500 people worldwide.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: )


– More than 134,500 people have been infected globally and over 4,900 have died, according to a Reuters tally of government announcements.

– Mainland China had eight new cases on Thursday, down from 15 new cases a day earlier. That brings the total number of infections in mainland China to 80,813. The death toll touched 3,176, up by seven from the previous day.


– Poland has reported its first death from coronavirus. So far, 47 cases have been confirmed in the country.

– Greece reported its first fatality, a 66-year-old man who had returned from a religious pilgrimage to Israel and Egypt at the end of February.

– Italy’s death toll from the coronavirus epidemic shot past 1,000 as the economic impact worsened. The total number of infections rose to 15,113.

– The number of confirmed cases across Britain rose to 590. Ten people have died.

– France will close all nurseries, schools and universities from Monday. The death toll rose to 61.

– A second patient has been diagnosed with coronavirus in Turkey, its Health Minister said on Friday.

– The Bulgarian parliament voted unanimously on Friday to declare a state of emergency until April 13 as the number of confirmed cases in the country more than tripled to 23.


– U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday morning that coronavirus testing in the United States will soon be carried out on a large scale.

– Trump ordered the suspension of European travel to the United States for 30 days to help curb the spread of a coronavirus pandemic.

– Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will self-isolate for two weeks after his wife, Sophie, tested positive on Thursday. Canada reported 145 new cases of the virus, a threefold gain from a week ago. There has been one death.

– Costa Rica, which has reported 22 cases, has ordered all university classes suspended.


– Kazakhstan confirmed first coronavirus cases.

– South Korea reported more recoveries than new infections on Friday for the first time since its outbreak emerged in January. The country recorded 110 new cases, compared with 114 a day earlier, taking the national tally to 7,979, with the death toll rising by five to 72 as of late Friday.

– A female diplomat from the Philippines mission to the United Nations tested positive on Thursday, according to a note sent to U.N. missions.

– An 80-year-old man became the fourth patient in Hong Kong to die from coronavirus.

– Total infections in Japan rose to 1,380.

– Thailand reported five new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 75.

– Vietnam’s coronavirus cases rose to 44 on Thursday, the Ministry of Health said. There have been no fatalities.

– China’s Wuhan city reported five new cases on Friday, the second day in a row the new tally has been less than 10, while no locally transmitted infections were reported in the rest of the country.


– Kenya confirmed East Africa’s first case of coronavirus, a woman who had returned to the capital Nairobi from the United States.

– Ethiopia has confirmed its first case.

– Saudi Arabia detected 17 new cases, 11 of whom were Egyptians.

– In Iran the total number of deaths from the outbreak has risen by 85 to 514, a Health Ministry official said on state TV on Friday, while total infections had increased by more than 1,000 in the past 24 hours to 11,364.

– Gabon and Ghana confirmed their first coronavirus cases on Thursday, becoming the ninth and 10th countries in sub-Saharan Africa to register positive cases.


– The Australian government said it would pump A$17.6 billion ($11.4 billion) into the economy to prevent the outbreak from pushing the country into its first recession for nearly 30 years.


– The Indonesian government has prepared a 120-trillion-rupiah ($8.1 billion) stimulus package to support its economy as the spread of coronavirus disrupts global activities.

– Spain placed four towns under quarantine and announced measures to tackle the economic impact.

– Japan’s government is expected to cut its assessment of the economy in a monthly report due later this month.

– Norway’s central bank said on Friday it had offered the first in a series of extraordinary loans to the banking industry, along with a surprise half-point cut in its key policy interest rate.

– France will help all companies in which the French state has a stake to weather the coronavirus crisis, its finance minister said on Friday, putting the growing cost of measures to soften the economic fallout at “dozens of billions”.

– Germany’s KfW state development bank has roughly half a trillion euros in support available to help support Europe’s largest economy, which risks being stricken by the coronavirus epidemic, the Economy Minister said on Friday.

– Sweden’s central bank said on Friday it would lend up to 500 billion crowns ($51 billion) to Swedish companies via banks

– China’s central bank cut the cash that banks must hold as reserves on Friday for the second time this year, releasing 550 billion yuan ($79 billion) to help its coronavirus-hit economy.

– Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered his government on Friday to allocate 300 billion tenge ($740 million) towards measures to boost employment through infrastructure maintenance projects.


– World stocks bounced off their lows on Friday on hopes of more central bank stimulus and government spending, but were still set for their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis, with coronavirus panic-selling hitting nearly every asset class. [MKTS/GLOB]


– Top Japanese government officials said they were determined to hold a “safe and secure” Olympics on schedule, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump said Tokyo should consider delaying them for a year because of the pandemic.

– Walt Disney Co will close its theme parks in California and Florida and its resort in Paris from this weekend through the end of the month, the company said on Thursday.

– The impact of the coronavirus on sport swept into the southern hemisphere, with the cancellation of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix adding to an unprecedented shutdown of elite events and competitions around the globe. [

– The World Trade Organization’s major biennial meeting, due to be held in Kazakhstan in June, was canceled, setting back its efforts to update the global rules of commerce.

– Bob Dylan’s upcoming concerts in Japan have been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak, the tour organizer said.

– The Tokyo 2020 Olympics torch was lit behind closed doors in ancient Olympia.

– India ordered upcoming international cricket matches to be played in empty stadiums.

– The World Endurance Championship (WEC) has canceled the Sebring 1,000 Miles race in Florida.

– Nepal has closed all of its Himalayan peaks including Mount Everest this climbing season because of fears of coronavirus contagion.

– France’s rugby federation said on Friday it was suspending all its competitions due to the coronavirus outbreak.

– All elite soccer matches in England, including the Premier League, were suspended until April 4 on Friday due to the coronavirus, English soccer’s governing bodies said in a joint statement.

(Compiled by Tommy Lund, Jagoda Darlak, Krishna Chandra Eluri and Uttaresh.V; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Arun Koyyur, and Anil D’Silva/Mark Heinrich)