Americans warned against travel as COVID-19 variants spread and testing rules go into effect

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The State Department warned Americans to strongly reconsider travel Tuesday as a new COVID-19 testing requirement went into effect and new variants of the virus were detected in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“If you’re overseas right now, it could be harder to come home for a while,” said Ian Brownlee, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for consular affairs. “Everyone needs to be prepared to be potentially seriously disrupted in their trip.”

Brownlee’s warning came on the first day of the U.S.’s new testing requirement for inbound travelers overseas. All airline passengers, regardless of citizenship, must now present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of travel or show proof that they have recovered from the deadly virus. Anyone failing to do either will be denied boarding by the airlines and will be responsible for any additional lodging costs.

While U.S. embassies overseas can help U.S. citizens with information and possibly a loan to help them return home, Brownlee said they do not have the ability to provide COVID-19 testing for those seeking to return.

“The bottom line message is: This is really not the time for people to be engaging in discretionary travel and that all travel should be postponed until we get a better handle on getting this virus under control, and accelerating our vaccination strategies,” he said.

The new measure is part of an executive order issued by the Biden administration to tighten COVID-19 restrictions with the hope of slowing down the spread of several highly contagious variants of the disease that are now spreading in the region.

At least 15 countries and territories in the Americas, including the United States, have confirmed the presence of at least one of three emerging variants: Those first identified in southeast England, South Africa or Brazil.

The new variants are proving to be very difficult and their emergence highlights the challenges U.S. health officials are facing in the race to vaccinate as many people as they can against infections, said Dr. Marty Cetron, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s global migration and quarantine division.

“They all suggest that they are potentially more contagious than the current circulating predominate virus. They can quickly become the predominant virus that’s circulating and several of them have presented challenges in …evading some of the natural immunity and challenges toward looking at our vaccine solutions,” he said.

The Pan American Health Organization confirmed the spread of one of the highly contagious mutated strains of the virus to 14 countries Tuesday. That list grew hours later when the Cayman Islands, a British dependent territory 433 miles south of Miami, reported that the U.K. variant had also been detected in three recent travelers arriving from Barbados and Britain.

“It is not surprising that we now have confirmation of this variant in the Cayman Islands, as we know it to be virulent and widespread,” Cayman’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee said.

Cayman was notified of the strain by the Caribbean Public Health Agency, the Trinidad-based public health agency conducting COVID-19 testing for a number of countries and territories in the region. The agency has been asking its members to send in selections of positive COVID-19 samples for genetic sequencing.

So far, Caribbean health experts have discovered the U.K. variant in Cayman Islands, St. Lucia, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Separately Cuba, according to PAHO, has reported the presence of the South African strain while the Dominican Republic has confirmed the presence of the U.K. variant.

On Tuesday, the U.S. surpassed 25 million reported cases of COVID-19 and over 400,000 deaths, the CDC said, making the variants even more of a threat. The CDC made a last-minute decision to eliminate a two-week waiver for airlines flying to countries where it will be difficult for passengers returning to the U.S. to comply with the new testing rule.

“This virus is a formidable foe,” Cetron said. “We have to be prepared to be very flexible in response to this virus and adapt our strategies quickly.”

Cetron said the new variants have the ability to spread asymptomatically and pre-symptomatically, characteristics that have been fueling the pandemic. Also worrying is the speed at which the virus can move through a population and grow exponentially, its reproductive rate and the evolution of the virus in forming mutations that have the potential to become more contagious, and potentially more serious.

For example, in the case of the strain that emerged in Manaus, Brazil, there is a high probability of reinfection. While the population had recovered from an initial large wave of infections, it was later revealed that the mutation caused a number of reinfections and a second uptick in cases. This variant has been reported in Japan after it was first identified in Brazil in December.

“We’re really in a race between a really formidable virus and our human ability to control transmission and bring our best tools to the table in the form of vaccinations. So we have the variant versus the vaccines, and we have the infection in general in and of itself, versus our ability to fight this.”

Since Tuesday, airlines have been tasked with confirming that passengers traveling to the U.S. have been tested within the previous three days, in accordance with the new order.

A spokesperson for American Airlines said Tuesday afternoon that the company’s Latin American and Caribbean operations were running smoothly, and that there were no major issues to report.

U.S. officials said they have been fielding calls from airlines and so far the issues that have come up are things that were anticipated and are being worked out. There are over 100 countries that have testing requirements for either exit or entry to control the global pandemic, the CDC said.

The new testing requirement does not apply to individuals flying from the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.

At the Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, however, chaos did erupt and police had to be called, said a physician, Dr. Vincent DeGennaro, who was traveling back to the U.S. Tuesday. DeGennaro said several passengers who got tested at his facility, Innovating Health International, which is among several on a U.S. embassy list, were denied boarding by airline agents when they checked in for their flight.

The airlines told the travelers that the tests were invalid because DeGennaro’s facility is not among the five on a list released by Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP).

“Why does the MSPP list matter?” said DeGennaro, who also got tested at his facility and faced no problems boarding a JetBlue flight to Fort Lauderdale. “These are American visa holders on U.S. private companies being screened for a U.S. policy they are going to need to enforce on the U.S. side of the border.”

DeGennaro said he spent the afternoon emailing, tweeting and calling all of the major U.S. carriers flying to Haiti, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. No one responded. He said another colleague traveling Tuesday told him he saw dozens of U.S. bound passengers denied due to the testing requirement.

American Airlines spokeswoman Laura Masvidal declined to comment on whether there had been any significant reduction in the number of people boarding flights. She acknowledged that some passengers arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport without proof of negative results and were moved to a later flight after showing the necessary documentation.

Spirit Airlines said while most of its U.S.-bound passengers flying out of the region Tuesday showed up with the proper documentation, some had to be turned away after presenting antibody tests. The CDC is requiring PCR COVID-19 tests or rapid antigen tests.

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FBI report warned of ‘war’ at Capitol, contradicting claims there was no indication of looming violence

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A situational information report approved for release the day before the U.S. Capitol riot painted a dire portrait of dangerous plans, including individuals sharing a map of the complex’s tunnels, and possible rally points for would-be conspirators to meet in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and South Carolina and head in groups to Washington.

“As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to ‘unlawful lockdowns’ to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington, D.C.,” the document says. “An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”

BLM is probably a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice. Pantifa is a derogatory term for antifa, a far-left anti-fascist movement whose adherents sometimes engage in violent clashes with right-wing extremists.

Yet even with that information in hand, the report’s unidentified author expressed concern that the FBI might be encroaching on free-speech rights.

Capitol Police were unable to stop a breach of the Capitol. Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig and a former Senate Sergeant at Arms describe the events. (The Washington Post)

The warning is the starkest evidence yet of the sizable intelligence failure that preceded the mayhem, which claimed the lives of five people, although one law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid disciplinary action, said the failure was not one of intelligence but of acting on the intelligence.

At the FBI office in Norfolk, the report was written within 45 minutes of receiving the information, officials said, and shared with counterparts in Washington.

The head of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, Steven D’Antuono, told reporters on Friday that the agency did not have intelligence suggesting the pro-Trump rally would be anything more than a lawful demonstration. During a news conference Tuesday, held after The Post’s initial publication of this report, he said the alarming Jan. 5 intelligence document was shared “with all our law enforcement partners” through the joint terrorism task force, which includes the U.S. Capitol Police, the U.S. Park Police, D.C. police, and other federal and local agencies.

He suggested there was not a great deal for law enforcement to do with the information because the FBI at that time did not know who made the comments. “That was a thread on a message board that was not attributable to an individual person,” D’Antuono said Tuesday.

D’Antuono did not say what, if anything, the FBI or other agencies did differently as a result of that information. Nor did he explain why he told reporters on Friday that there had been no such intelligence.

Steven Sund, who resigned as Capitol Police chief, said in an interview Tuesday that he never received nor was made aware of the FBI’s field bulletin, insisting he and others would have taken the warning seriously had it been shared.

“I did not have that information, nor was that information taken into consideration in our security planning,” Sund said.

Since the riot, agents and prosecutors have been intent on tracking down and arresting the most violent participants in the mob, in part because there is already significant online discussion of new potential clashes for Sunday and again on Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is set to take the oath of office.

Michael R. Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for D.C., said there would be a strike force of prosecutors looking to file charges of seditious conspiracy where the evidence merited it.

The Jan. 5 FBI report notes that the information represents the view of the FBI’s Norfolk office, is not to be shared outside law enforcement circles, that it is not “finally evaluated intelligence,” and that agencies receiving it “are requested not to take action based on this raw reporting without prior coordination with the FBI.”

Multiple law enforcement officials have said privately in recent days that the level of violence exhibited at the Capitol has led to difficult discussions within the FBI and other agencies about race, terrorism and whether investigators failed to register the degree of danger because the overwhelming majority of the participants at the rally were White conservatives fiercely loyal to Trump.

“Individuals/Organizations named in this [situational information report] have been identified as participating in activities that are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the document says. “Their inclusion here is not intended to associate the protected activity with criminality or a threat to national security, or to infer that such protected activity itself violates federal law.

“However,” it continues, “based on known intelligence and/or specific historical observations, it is possible the protected activity could invite a violent reaction towards the subject individual or others in retaliation or with the goal of stopping the protected activity from occurring in the first instance. In the event no violent reaction occurs, FBI policy and federal law dictates that no further record be made of the protected activity.”

The document notes that one online comment advised, “if Antifa or BLM get violent, leave them dead in the street,” while another said they need “people on standby to provide supplies, including water and medical, to the front lines. The individual also discussed the need to evacuate noncombatants and wounded to medical care.”

On Jan. 6, a large, angry crowd of people who had attended a rally nearby marched to the Capitol, smashing windows and breaking doors to get inside. One woman in the mob was shot and killed by Capitol Police; officials said three others in the crowd had medical emergencies and died. A Capitol Police officer died after suffering injuries.

The FBI said in a statement that its “standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products,” but added that FBI field offices “routinely share information with their local law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve.”

For weeks leading up to the event, FBI officials discounted any suggestion that the activities of Trump supporters upset about the scheduled certification of Biden’s election win could be a security threat on a scale with the racial-justice demonstrations that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.

While the nation’s capital is one of the most heavily guarded cities on the planet, local and federal law enforcement agencies sought to take a low-key approach to last week’s event, publicly and privately expressing concerns that they did not want to repeat last year’s ugly clashes between protesters and police.

Some law enforcement officials took the view that protesters who support Trump are generally known for over-the-top rhetoric but not much violence, and therefore the event did not pose a particularly serious risk, according to people familiar with the security discussions leading up to Jan. 6.

Even so, there were warning signs, though none as stark as the one from the FBI’s Norfolk office.

FBI agents had in the weeks before the Trump rally visited suspected far-right extremists, hoping to glean whether they had violent intentions, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the law enforcement activity. It was not immediately clear who was visited or if the FBI was specifically tracking anyone who would later be charged criminally. These visits were first reported Sunday by NBC News.

In addition, in the days leading up to the demonstrations, some Capitol Hill staffers were told by supervisors to not come in to work that day, if possible, because it seemed the danger level would be higher than many previous protests, according to a person familiar with the warning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. Capitol Police did not take the kind of extra precautions, such as frozen zones and hardened barriers, that are typically used for major events near the Capitol.

Federal agents are on high alert as the inauguration nears, with authorities bracing for possible violence not just in Washington but also nationwide, officials said.

The FBI recently issued a different memo saying that “armed protests” were being planned “at all 50 state capitols” and in D.C. in the run-up to the inauguration, according to an official familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive law enforcement matter.

The memo — first reported by ABC News and later confirmed by The Post — is a raw intelligence product, compiling information gathered by the bureau and several other government agencies, the official familiar with the matter said. Some of it is unverified, and the threat probably will differ significantly from place to place, the official said.

But the information it highlights to law enforcement is nonetheless troubling — including that there was data suggesting people might storm government offices or stage an uprising were Trump to be removed from office, the official said.

In a statement, the FBI declined to comment specifically on the memo about state capitols but said: “Our efforts are focused on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. As we do in the normal course of business, we are gathering information to identify any potential threats and are sharing that information with our partners.

“The FBI respects the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights,” it said. “Our focus is not on peaceful protesters, but on those threatening their safety and the safety of other citizens with violence and destruction of property.”

Carol D. Leonnig and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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