Plan for Contact Tracing Air Travelers Stalls

Last week, news outlets reported that the White House put the brakes on a plan by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to require airlines to collect information on passengers in order to conduct contact tracing and stem the spread of COVID-19. It does not look like a new plan will be in place by the end of the year.

As Paul Lewis and I wrote in The Hill earlier this summer, having a well-funded, robust legion of workers to reach out to infected people to get them to self-quarantine and connect them with related health services, is proven to be an effective way to control communicable diseases. Sadly, recent reports show the national contract tracing approach is not working due to the lack of adequate funding, the shortage of tracers, poor coordination, and serious lags in testing.

But putting part of the onus on the airlines will not fix those structural problems. Those arriving by air are only about one-third of international arrivals in the United States and the data they provide is often incomplete and impossible to verify. Plus, airlines capture only about half of air travelers’ data since online travel agencies and others do a large share of the bookings.

As Paul and I wrote: Washington needs to work with its state and local partners — as well as the airlines and other travel providers — to build a comprehensive, government-led system of information. It should include information for international as well as domestic passengers and cover all modes of travel, not just airlines. Such a database needs to be collected, verified and maintained by a single, governmental entity. 

Doing so is certainly not easy. In fact, Canada is experiencing the same problems now. But the airlines’ domestic trade group—Airlines for America—paid for and developed a workable third-party mobile app and website and offered to gift it to the federal government. At this point, that would appear to be the best and fastest way for the data the CDC to amass and verify the important wants to obtain.

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