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Millions head back home after Thanksgiving as travel restrictions over new COVID-19 variant loom

The U.S. will restrict some travelers starting Monday as the omicron coronavirus variant sparks concerns.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With the holiday weekend wrapping up, millions have been flying and driving back home. 

Screening counts from the Transportation Security Administration over the past few days show travel is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.

Screenings nationwide on Saturday alone topped 2.2 million, which the TSA said was 83% of screenings done that same weekday back in 2019. Friday's screening counts represented about 90% of those happening on that weekday in 2019.

Erykah Coe was one of thousands of passengers passing through Charlotte-Douglas International Airport Sunday. After some Thanksgiving time with family, Coe was heading back to Maryland on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

"I came here early last week, and it was pretty packed. Once we came back here today, it wasn't too bad," Coe said.

Coe made sure to heed travel warnings to arrive early for her flight, and she also remained vigilant against the coronavirus.

"I try to stay away from people more. I'm not too close up to people," Coe said. "I don't know who has what."

The holiday travel bustle continues as the U.S. gets another reminder that the pandemic is not over.

Scientists announced Friday that there is a new concerning COVID-19 variant with the potential of being more contagious and evasive of current vaccines. The World Health Organization has dubbed it "omicron" and labeled it a "variant of concern."

South Africa first reported omicron on Wednesday, although the infection sample was gathered in early November.

U.S. officials are trying to get ahead of the variant's spread with new travel restrictions starting Monday. Non-U.S. citizens from eight African nations, including South Africa, will be restricted from entering the country.

Scientists are still studying the variant to see how much of a problem it will cause, but the WHO said there is early evidence it could be more transmissible than other variants. The agency noted there was a spike in COVID-19 cases in South Africa around the time that omicron emerged.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, said a look at omicron's mutations show a concerning potential for the virus to bind more easily to the nasal passages and the lungs.

"The profile of the mutations strongly suggest that it's going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection that you would get, for example, from a monoclonal antibody or from the convalescent serum after a person's been infected, and possibly even against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies," Fauci said.

Contact Vanessa Ruffes at vruffes@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

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