To ensure we are equipping our readers with all the information they need, we will continue to report on all travel, safety, and COVID-related news that could impact a Disney Parks visit.
The global health crisis has been ongoing for two years and has had its fair share of effects on Disney World.
We’ve seen closures, significant health measures, changes in demand and capacity, and more as the world grapples with COVID-19 and its variants. Now, a new coronavirus variant has been defined, the Omicron variant. Let’s take a look at its potential effects on your Disney World trip.
What is the Omicron Coronavirus variant?
First of all, let’s take a look at the basics: What is the Omicron variant? Omicron is a mutation of the coronavirus that is the newest variant to be designated as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO).
At this time, research into the Omicron variant is still ongoing. According to the WHO, “As of 1 December 2021, there is limited information about Omicron. Studies are ongoing to determine if there is a change in how easily the virus spreads or the severity of disease it causes, and if there are any impacts on protective measures.”
In a video released by the WHO on December 17th, 2021, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove indicated that “In terms of transmissibility, we are seeing a really increased growth rate of Omicron over other variants of concern…At the time of filming this Omicron has been detected in more than 77 countries, but it’s likely that it’s present in other countries as well.”
Dr. Kerkhove also noted that some of the mutations that have been identified in Omicron provide a “growth advantage,” allowing it to be more transmissible.
In terms of the symptoms for Omicron, Dr. Kerkhove noted that they are still learning about the severity of the disease, but they do know that individuals who have Omicron “can have the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic infection, mild infection, people needing hospitalization, and people have died from Omicron.”
According to Dr. Kerkhove, there are “initial reports that suggest that Omicron is less severe compared to Delta. However, if again, if we have more cases, more cases mean more hospitalizations, and if a health care system is overburdened, people will die because they won’t get the appropriate care that they need. So, it’s early to tell whether or not Omicron is more or less severe, but we do have some initial reports that it is less severe.”
When asked what people can do to protect themselves against Omicron, Dr. Kerkhove noted that the first thing is to get vaccinated. Dr. Kerkhove noted that studies regarding Omicron and the effectiveness of vaccines are underway, but “what we do know is that it is better to be vaccinated than not.” Dr. Kerkhove also noted that measures like physical distancing, wearing a well-fitted mask, cleaning your hands, and avoiding crowds can help.
What is confirmed by WHO is that all variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant, “can cause severe disease or death, in particular for more vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.”
Further, there is some early evidence that may suggest an increased risk of reinfection from Omicron (that is, those who have had COVID-19 may be more at risk of infection from Omicron than other variants). At this time, it is also known that PCR tests continue to detect COVID-19 infections — including those from the Omicron variant.
The first confirmed case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the U.S. was identified in California on December 1st, according to CNN. The fully-vaccinated individual had recently traveled from South Africa. Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, noted that the individual had not, to his knowledge, received the booster shot. Since then, the variant has been spotted in several more U.S. states.
South Africa has noted some preliminary data that suggests an increase in rates of hospitalization, but this may be due to an increase in overall numbers being infected. At this time, studies are underway to determine if the Omicron variant is the reason for the increase in positive tests or if it is due to other factors, per WHO.
According to Click Orlando (powered by News 6), “Omicron has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for 73% of new infections last week.” Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that there has been nearly a six-fold increase in the share of infections due to Omicron in only one week.
On December 20th, 2021, Fox 13 News shared that the number of COVID-19 cases reported in Florida in the previous week were over double the number of cases reported in the prior week. Health officials have indicated that the Omicron variant is most likely to blame. The first Omicron cases have already been detected in Florida and it has been identified as being present in the wastewater in a Disney World county.
As of January 3rd, 2022, the United States has set the global daily record of COVID-19 cases with one million cases.
What are the concerns about the Omicron variant?
So, there are still a lot of questions about the Omicron variant but what concerns do health and science professionals have? CBS notes that “Health authorities say Omicron carries a unique set of mutations that might give the virus an advantage in driving new surges of infections compared with the fast-spreading Delta variant, which currently makes up virtually all U.S. cases.”
In addition to potentially increasing infection rates, the Omicron variant has been defined as the “most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic so far.” The European Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) cited serious concerns that the variant “may be associated with significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness and increased risk for reinfections.”
To contend with these concerns, scientists around the world are currently working to research the Omicron variant. WHO is currently coordinating a number of studies including “assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments.”
The individual vaccine companies — Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer and BioNTech — are in the process of investigating the impact Omicron may have on vaccine effectiveness. According to CBS, “The companies say they are already preparing to potentially change their vaccines to target Omicron.”
According to NBC Chicago, Pfizer has previously indicated that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine “may offer important protection against the new omicron variant even though the initial two doses appear significantly less effective.” Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA vaccine chief, also indicated that the “agency made its decision to recommend extra doses for younger people because a booster ‘may help provide better protection against both the delta and omicron variants,’ especially as omicron is ‘slightly more resistant’ to the vaccine-induced antibodies that help fend off infection.”
Moderna has also indicated that its COVID-19 booster shot appears to provide protection against the Omicron COVID-19 variant. Johnson & Johnson has also indicated the same. According to NBC Chicago, though the FDA approved the Johnson & Johnson booster, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people should get the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters instead where possible, citing concerns over extremely rare blood clots.”
COVID-19 Testing and Masks
As of the time of this writing, every home in the United States is eligible to order 4 FREE at-home COVID-19 tests.
Additionally, WESH 2 News reports that the Biden administration will be making “400 million N95 masks available for free to Americans” soon. Individuals will be able to pick up the masks at pharmacies and community health centers around the country.
This comes after the CDC made updates to its website to note that “Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection.”
What travel restrictions have been put in place in response to the Omicron variant?
According to Al Jazeera, the United States has currently closed its borders to non-citizens from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Some countries have enacted total bans on foreigners entering the country — China, Israel, Japan, and Morocco — and partial bans have been enacted around the world.
UPDATE: The White House has issued a subsequent proclamation revoking the previous proclamation which created the travel bans applicable to the southern African countries. Effective December 31st, 2021 at 12:01AM ET, the U.S. travel bans in place for those southern African countries will be lifted. The countries impacted are: the Republic of Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Republic of Malawi, the Republic of Mozambique, the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, and the Republic of Zimbabwe.
The current United States travel restrictions could have effects on Disney World travelers. The U.S. currently requires all non-immigrant, non-citizen air travelers to the United States are required to be fully vaccinated and provide proof of their vaccination status BEFORE boarding a plane to the U.S. The country has also extended the mask mandate on airplanes, per the New York Times.
Additionally, all travelers are required to show a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than 1 day before travel. The section below is from the CDC’s website for international travel for non-U.S. citizens and non-U.S. immigrants.
Proof of vaccination is not required for U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents before boarding a flight to the U.S., but they must meet certain COVID-19 testing requirements. The same 1-day COVID-19 testing requirements apply for U.S. Citizens, U.S. Nationals, lawful permanent residents, and immigrants traveling to the U.S.
After arrival in the United States, travelers are recommended to take a COVID-19 test three to five days after travel. The image below is taken from the CDC site for U.S. citizens, nationals, permanent residents, and immigrants. Different recommendations may apply to others, so be sure to review what recommendations apply to you.
Some individuals are being completely advised not to travel by WHO. WHO notes, “Persons who are unwell, or who have not been fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID-19 (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes) should be advised to postpone travel to areas with community transmission.”
What recommendations have been made in response to the Omicron variant?
The recommendations in response to the Omicron variant are similar to the health recommendations we’ve seen over the last two years. WHO says, “The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 meter from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) echoes these sentiments recommending “prevention strategies such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, washing your hands frequently, and physically distancing from others.” The CDC also recommends the vaccine for those over five years old and the booster for those who are eligible.
As of January 3rd, the Pfizer booster waiting period has been shortened from six months to five months, per CNBC. Per the CDC, the time period to receive the Moderna booster has also been reduced to 5 months. The CDC also notes that individuals who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can receive a booster 2 months after receiving the initial vaccine.
As a note, the CDC‘s current masking recommendation notes that everyone should wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission. The CDC also notes that individuals might want to consider wearing masks in crowded outdoor settings in places with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
According to CDC data, Orange and Osceola counties in Florida (where Disney World is located) are both currently classified as having high levels of transmission.
What changes could Disney World make?
We are still in the early stages of learning about the Omicron variant but what changes can we predict we might see in response in Disney World? Keep in mind, there were not many changes in response to the Delta variant and there have been fewer policy changes in general since the vaccine became widely available.
The major changes we’ve seen in recent months include the reinstatement of the indoor mask policy which came along with the CDC changing recommendations with rising transmission last summer. Disney World also recently paused most Annual Pass sales to help manage capacity, though this was done before the Omicron variant was widely defined.
We’ve seen that Disney World’s mask policy typically matches recommendations from the CDC. At this time, the CDC has not really adjusted its guidelines but Disney World may adjust policies if the CDC makes major changes.
Still, mask policy changes and updates have been much more prevalent than closures. Re-closures for rides, restaurants, shows, and hotels may be unlikely as Disney has continued to announce reopenings despite the Delta and Omicron variants thus far.
If mask or capacity policies do see changes, you’ll be able to learn all about them and how they might affect your trip here on DFB. So, keep an eye on DFB for any policy updates and major health recommendations from science and health professionals.