Romania enforces new travel measures over omicron concerns

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BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania on Friday introduced new travel restrictions and isolation measures for people entering the country as officials seek to avert another health care crisis following the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Romania, a European Union country of about 19 million, faced its deadliest period of the pandemic through October and November and has so far confirmed three cases of omicron, which is thought to be more contagious than the previous coronavirus variant.

All three of Romania’s omicron cases have been detected in people connected with a government repatriation flight from South Africa to Bucharest at the end of November. Several others who returned on that flight have since tested positive for COVID-19, and sequencing is being carried out, the health ministry said.

The new travel rules will be enforced from Friday until Jan. 8 and aim to curb transmission over the winter holiday period. They include proof of a negative COVID-19 test, quarantine for unvaccinated travelers — and depend on the epidemiological risk of the country they arrive from. From Dec. 20, passenger location forms will also be implemented to improve the traceability of infections.

But while the authorities hope the new travel measures will prevent a spike in infections, and curb the spread of omicron as many return home over the winter holidays, some internal restrictions have been eased.

Places such as shops, cafes, malls, and restaurants can now stay open until 10 p.m., an hour later, and people can enter without a “green certificate” but with proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Masks are no longer required in uncrowded open public places, and on key winter holidays — such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve — closing times for businesses are effectively scrapped.

Health minister Alexandru Rafila said after a government meeting this week that the authorities must give people hope that they can “live normally in this country” but that if infection rates rise above certain thresholds, measures will be reversed.

“This openness on the part of the government is due to the interest for life to return to normal in Romania,” Rafila said, but warned that the authorities “cannot ignore the dangers that follow.”

Dragos Zaharia, a primary care doctor at Bucharest’s Marius Nasta Institute of Pneumology who was on the front line during a bleak period in October and November when Romania had one of the highest coronavirus mortality rates in the world, says the relaxation measures are necessary but also “a risky game.”

“We are expecting a fifth wave. I am worried that things could get out of control again,” Zaharia told The Associated Press. “This equilibrium between restrictions and freedom is quite hard to achieve. But without relaxations, the population could become less compliant to future measures.”

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