Beginning Monday, September 14, The U.S. government will stop conducting enhanced COVID-19 screening of passengers on inbound international flights, Yahoo News reported yesterday.
The order allegedly came directly from the White House, though no public statement has yet been issued by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For months now, Americans returning from “high-risk” countries — including most of Europe, China, and Iran — have been funneled through 15 U.S. airports, including major gateways in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C. and others.
During the enhanced health screenings, international passengers have received temperature checks and completed health questionnaires to disclose any symptoms, previous exposure to COVID-19 and contact information for local health authorities.
In offering an explanation for the move, a TSA official told CNN that of 675,000 passengers screened, “fewer than 15” were identified as having COVID-19.
Health officials have never believed that airport screenings were an effective way to identify infected travelers.
Back in January, passengers arriving from China were screened for fever at three U.S. airports and the efforts did not thwart the pandemic.
In February, a study from the U.K. determined that such screenings would miss almost half of infected travelers.
In May, CDC scientists advised DHS officials that screening for fever is an ineffective way to combat COVID-19. The Trump administration moved forward anyway.
“Thermal scanning as proposed is a poorly designed control and detection strategy, as we have learned very clearly,” Dr. Martin Cetron, the CDC’s director of global mitigation and quarantine, said in an email to DHS officials at the time. “We should be concentrating our CDC resources where there is impact and a probability of mission success.”
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows reportedly told DHS to go forward with temperature screenings. According to meeting notes, Meadows said that temperature screenings would be visible and instill confidence in travelers.
More recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, also said that temperature checks are an unreliable method of detecting COVID-19.
Since the pandemic began, the Trump administration has neither pushed for testing — as opposed to screening — of international travelers at U.S. airports, nor has it mandated testing domestic flyers.
Still, coronavirus has spread through U.S. air travel, as evidenced by the 235 TSA employees who currently have active COVID-19 infections, according to the agency’s public recordkeeping. Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 1,800 TSA employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and six TSA officers have died of the disease.
President Trump has publicly downplayed the threat of the virus that has killed more than 190,000 people in the United States, but in newly released audio interviews with the journalist Bob Woodward, it is clear that Trump has understood the grave danger of the virus since at least early February.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward days after declaring a national emergency in March. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”