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The Beijing Daxing International Airport on Oct. 29, 2021. Credit: Jesse Zhang

An ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in China and travel restrictions by the United States have created challenges for international students at Penn.

On Dec. 28, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it would be mandating negative COVID-19 tests for travelers arriving to the United States from China, Hong Kong, and Macau, Associate Provost and Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé wrote in an update to Penn students. The new policy has impacted international students at Penn and their plans to return home over winter break.

“Travelers to the U.S. from the People’s Republic of China, as well as from the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, are now required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test no more than 2 days before departure,” Dubé wrote.

Dubé also cautioned Penn students against overreacting to the recent global surge in cases.

"There's no cause for alarm for us locally," Dubé told The Daily Pennsylvanian. "What has happened in China is completely distinct and separate from what we're experiencing here, and we have to think of our peers coming from China through the lens of compassion."

People who have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days can avoid testing by showing proof of their positive test.

The travel restrictions on passengers from China were implemented due to a new wave of infections. According to China's National Health Commission, 1.63 million people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Jan. 5, and nearly 60,000 have died of COVID-19 since early December 2022.

Runtian Miao, a doctoral student at Penn from China and the current Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Vice President of Finance, told the DP that Chinese students were hesitant to return home for the holidays because of strict COVID-19 policies and rising case numbers. 

“Most students didn’t have the chance to go home, partly because of COVID-19 issues,” Miao said. “I do know a couple of folks that went home for the winter break, but that was a rare case.”

Executive Director of Penn’s International Student & Scholar Services Rodolfo Altamirano wrote to the DP that COVID-19 has created additional barriers to international students’ travel.

“U.S. Embassies or Consulates shut down in [students’] home countries. This is due to COVID-19 case surge and/or limited visa appointment availability,” Altamirano wrote. 

The CDC reported that pre-departure testing and proof of a negative COVID-19 test have decreased the number of infected passengers boarding airplanes and have slowed the spread of new variants spreading on international flights. However, Miao said they believe that the measure is in place for political reasons.

“I do feel like it’s more of a political movement than actually a prevention step [like] quarantining and other COVID-19-related measures,” Miao said. “Now students need to do extra work if they are going back to their home countries and coming back [to Penn].”

Altamirano added that the COVID-19 test requirement makes it more challenging for travelers to visit and return from affected areas.

“A negative COVID-19 test before boarding an international flight does create an extra barrier. It requires additional cost and planning,” Altamirano wrote. “Many international students are anxious that their family members will not be able to attend their graduation this spring.”

Toward the end of break, on Jan. 8, China announced an end to its zero-COVID-19 initiative saying that travelers to China would no longer need to quarantine upon arrival to the mainland and close contacts would not be as heavily monitored. However, a negative COVID-19 test is still required for American passengers to travel to China.

While Penn does not publicly release the amount of enrolled students living in China, 5.2% of the Class of 2025 are international students from Asia.