The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered airlines to provide the names of passengers arriving in the U.S. who have traveled to southern Africa in recent days as it assesses the potential spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The CDC told carriers that they must provide the information to allow for contact tracing in a letter sent Tuesday, the agency said in a press release. The airlines had been told to collect potential contact-tracing data in an order last October but weren’t required to submit it to the agency.

“CDC is issuing this directive to prevent the importation and spread of a communicable disease of public health importance,” it said in the release.

While scientists are still assessing the potential dangers of the omicron variant, there are fears that its multiple mutations might make it more transmissible or able to sidestep protections from vaccinations.

The omicron variant was first discovered in southern Africa, but evidence has since emerged that it was present in Europe in the days before the first reported cases. Omicron cases have been identified in more than 20 nations, including in Europe, Canada and Australia.

President Joe Biden imposed travel restrictions on nations in southern Africa on Friday. The restrictions on visitors from South Africa and seven other nations don’t apply to U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

The contact-tracing order applies to the same countries, which include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The order applies to passengers, including U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled to those nations within 14 days of their flight to the U.S., the CDC said.

As part of a group of measures designed to allow more open international travel that went into place on Nov. 8, the CDC in October issued rules requiring airlines to keep passenger data in the event it was needed for contact tracing.

“CDC may share the information securely with relevant state, local, and territorial public health authorities at a passenger’s destination,” the Atlanta-based health agency said on its website. “The data collected will enable CDC and the relevant health departments to contact those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or other communicable diseases.”

Similar measures have been imposed in the past for such diseases as Ebola.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has been participating in a CDC program that began in 2020 to ask customers to voluntarily submit personal contact information for tracing purposes, the company said in a statement.

“We will comply with CDC directives,” the Atlanta-based carrier said. “Just as we have throughout the pandemic, we are in close coordination with public health bodies and industry regulators in our shared mission to keep the safety and health of customers our top priority.”

A United Airlines Holdings Inc. spokeswoman said Wednesday the carrier is in compliance with the CDC policy and declined further comment. American Airlines Group Inc. also said it is in compliance.

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