Dutch authorities find 61 COVID-19 cases among South Africa travelers

AMSTERDAM — Dutch authorities said 61 people from two flights that entered the Netherlands from South Africa have tested positive for COVID-19.

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Health officials tested 600 passengers who arrived on Friday morning at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, The New York Times reported. It was unclear as of Saturday morning if the cases were linked to the omicron variant, the newspaper reported.

The Netherlands is one of several countries that banned travel from South Africa on Friday amid concern over omicron, according to The Wall Street Journal. The passengers who arrived Friday -- after the ban went into effect -- were held for hours on the tarmac and then taken for testing, the newspaper reported.

Other countries implementing a ban included the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan and Thailand, according to The Associated Press.

The two KLM planes, which departed from Cape Town and Johannesburg, had already been airborne when the bans went into effect, the Times reported.

Passengers arriving in the Netherlands from outside the European Union must show a negative test certificate unless they have proof of vaccination, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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A spokesperson for KLM said the airline was trying to determine what rules were in place as of Friday morning to prevent people with COVID-19 infections from boarding the flights, Reuters reported.

One of the passengers stuck on the tarmac was the Times reporter Stephanie Nolan, who had been in South Africa covering the country’s response to the pandemic.

“So I’m in my 3d hour on a tarmac at Schiphol,” she tweeted, after her flight from Johannesburg had landed. “While my flight from Jo’burg was somewhere over Chad, Europe went into variant panic; by the time we landed, we weren’t allowed off the plane.”

On Saturday, Nolan tweeted that she tested negative and was awaiting a further flight to Canada.

Dutch health officials said in a statement that they understood frustration among passengers who had thought that they would be allowed to go home, but were instead “confronted with a situation like we’ve never had before in the Netherlands.”

Hugo de Jonge, the Netherlands’ health minister, tweeted that those with a positive test were being taken to a quarantine hotel near the airport.

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“Now it’s important to research whether this concerns the Omicron variant,” he tweeted.

People who tested positive have to stay at the hotel for at least seven days if they have symptoms, or for five days if they do not, health officials said. Passengers who had tested positive for the coronavirus and live with people who were on the flight will be allowed to spend their quarantine at home, the BBC reported.

The World Health Organization on Friday declared omicron a “variant of concern.”

According to researchers, the variant was first identified in South Africa and has 32 mutations in the part of the virus that attaches to human cells.

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