After preliminary test results came back, the Dutch health ministry announced that up to 85 passengers on just two planes from South Africa could test positive for COVID-19 after arriving in the Netherlands on Friday morning.
So far, 110 of the approximately 600 guests have had their tests completed, with 15 of them returning positive. Despite rigorous pre-departure testing, the Dutch health ministry expects to uncover roughly 85 positive cases, based on a positivity rate of nearly 15%.
“The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant, which has since been given the name Omicron variant,” the local health authorities said in a statement.
After arriving at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport early on Friday morning, passengers on the two flights — one from Johannesburg and the other from Cape Town – were stuck onboard for hours.
The planes had left South Africa just as Europe began to respond to the increasingly worrisome news about the Omicron variety. The variant could be even more highly transmissible than the Delta version, making existing vaccinations ineffective.
In Gauteng province, which contains Johannesburg and Pretoria, Omicron has already established itself as the dominant variant. The mutation is also thought to be responsible for a recent spike in new COVID-19 infections in South Africa, which could signal the start of a fourth wave.
The Dutch government had imposed a travel restriction on South Africa by the time the flights arrived in the Netherlands. Passengers were not permitted to disembark until a decision was made about what to do with them.
Eventually, despite having already provided pre-departure tests, health officials decided to transport passengers to a secure place within the airport where they would all be tested for COVID-19.
Passengers who test positive will be taken to hotel quarantine alongside their travel companions, while those who test negative will be free to self-isolate at home.
Passengers with a negative result and an onward connection, on the other hand, will be allowed to continue their journeys despite having spent many hours in close proximity to positive cases.
Stephanie Nolen, a health reporter for the New York Times, was a passenger on the KLM aircraft from Johannesburg and offered a detailed description of her time delayed on the plane when it arrived in Amsterdam.
On her Twitter account, Nolen wrote: “So I’m in my 3d hour on a tarmac at Schipol. While my flight from Jo’burg was somewhere over Chad, Europe went into a variant panic; by the time we landed, we weren’t allowed off the plane. They won’t even let a catering truck bring us water.”
Nolen was eventually bussed with the other passengers to a hall where she joined a long queue to be tested. “Two hours in a line and I’ve been tested. No word on when we get results or what comes next.
Airport authorities have yet to sort the food/water issue and so there is some escalating hysteria among passengers,” Nolen wrote.
Noeln tested negative after spending the entire day delayed at Schipol airport and was allowed to board another trip to Canada, where she lives.
KLM stated in a statement that it would continue to fly to South Africa but would follow a tougher protocol that included a no-fly zone for non-Dutch and EU people.
“KLM is taking the situation very seriously and will continue to prioritize the safety of passengers and crew,” the airline said. “KLM will therefore impose strict on-board safety requirements for passengers and crew. This protocol will be in line with the requirements issued by the respective governments.”