Report: CDC airport COVID-19 screening program ‘ineffective,’ ‘resource-intensive’

Early pandemic efforts to screen international passengers for the coronavirus at U.S. airports were largely “ineffective,” according to a new report published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report journal

In January, the CDC and U.S. Department of Homeland Security began a screening program for air passengers arriving from certain countries to reduce the importation of COVID-19 cases into the U.S. A total of 766,044 passengers were screened at 15 airports around the country between Jan. 17 and Sept. 13. Only one case per 85,000 travelers screened was detected.

“The low case detection rate of this resource-intensive program highlighted the need for fundamental change in the U.S. border health strategy,” the report said. It also notes that because transmission of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, can happen by asymptomatic carriers and symptoms vary, “symptom-based screening programs are ineffective” and “resource-intensive.”

When the program began in January, it concentrated on entry screening of travelers arriving from the Wuhan province in China, the early epicenter of the virus, at three U.S. airports. Over time, the program expanded to 15 airports and to include all passengers arriving from mainland China, Iran, 26 countries in the European Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Brazil. 

The screening consisted of three steps: 

  1. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers identified and referred travelers for screening if they had been to one of the specified countries during the previous 14 days.
  2. Initial health screenings for those travelers were conducted that included a temperature check, a questionnaire about symptoms and virus exposure and collection of contact information. 
  3. Ill travelers or those who disclosed exposure were referred for additional assessment to on-site medical personnel or to a local health care facility. 

The total cost of the program was not disclosed, though at the program’s peak volume in March, approximately 750 screeners, plus supporting personnel, were involved, and the CDC covered the cost of equipment, travel and housing of quarantined travelers. The CDC also transferred about $57 million to DHS to support the operation. 

“These findings demonstrate that temperature and symptom screening at airports detected few COVID-19 cases and required considerable resources,” the report concluded. 

The report indicated that since the program ended in September, the CDC has focused its efforts on communicating preventive measures to travelers and airlines. The report also recommended better contact tracing and contact-information collection, health declarations, COVID-19 testing and quarantine or limited movement after high-risk travel to slow the spread of the virus.

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