US 'looking' at mandating COVID-19 testing for domestic air travel

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The Biden administration is ‘actively looking’ at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to travelers on US domestic flights, a senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official said on Tuesday.

On a call with reporters, Dr Marty Cetron, director for the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at CDC, was asked about whether new domestic travel testing requirements might be employed. 

Cetron replied that there were ‘conversations that are ongoing and looking at what the types and locations of testing might be… We’re actively looking at it’.

Airline officials worry such requirements could curtail already weak demand for air travel. 

Last week, President Joe Biden directed US agencies to make recommendations to ‘impose additional public health measures for domestic travel’ and to consider new requirements for people crossing land borders. 

Reuters reported Friday that administration officials said that could include requiring negative COVID-19 tests before flying domestically.

‘We realize that there’s been a dramatic evolution and increase in both testing platforms and testing capacity. I think this is a really important part of our toolkit to combat this pandemic,’ Cetron said.

The airline industry has already been hit hard by the COVID pandemic, with lockdown restrictions and fears over catching the virus on planes sending passenger numbers plummeting.

Passenger traffic was down 67 per cent in 2020, wiping out 21 years of global aviation growth in a matter of months, as passenger numbers dropped to levels last seen in 1999.

At the peak of the disruption in April, scheduled passenger flights dropped to just 13,600 globally, on April 25, compared to 2020’s busiest day on January 3 when Cirium tracked over 95,000 scheduled passenger flights – an extraordinary 86 per cent reduction in flights.

On Tuesday, new CDC rules took effect requiring nearly all international air travelers aged 2 and older to present a negative coronavirus test taken within three calendar days of travel or proof of COVID-19 recovery to enter the US.

In discussions with airline officials, the CDC has said it is considering requiring domestic testing, too. 

  The CDC said Sunday it would not grant waivers to exempt travelers from some countries with limited testing capacity. Numerous US airlines had sought waivers.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Ian Brownlee told reporters that the CDC was ‘not at this time issuing federal quarantine orders’ but recommends self-quarantining for seven days after returning from a trip and getting post-arrival COVID-19 tests.

Brownlee said the ‘main message to US citizens considering travel abroad remains the same: Seriously reconsider going overseas right now’. 

‘If you’re overseas right now, it’s going to be harder to come home for a while,’ Brownlee said. 

Meanwhile, Biden on Monday reinstated COVID-19 travel restrictions on most non-US travelers from Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom and 26 other European countries that allow travel across open borders. He also added South Africa to the list.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said South Africa was added to the restricted list because of concerns about a variant of the virus that has spread beyond that nation.

‘This isn’t the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,’ Psaki said.

The prohibition Biden is reinstating suspends entry to nearly all foreign nationals who have been in any of the countries on the restricted list at any point during the 14 days before their scheduled travel to the US.

Top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci called Biden’s decision to reinstate the travel restrictions-and add South Africa to the list- ‘prudent’ in a round of television interviews Monday.

‘We have concern about the mutation that’s in South Africa,’ Fauci told ‘CBS This Morning.’ 

‘We’re looking at it very actively. It is clearly a different and more ominous than the one in the UK, and I think it’s very prudent to restrict travel of noncitizens.’

The 26 European countries impacted by reinstatement of the ban are part of the border-free Schengen zone. They include Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Biden’s team had announced that he would reimpose the travel restrictions, but the addition of South Africa to the restricted travel list highlights the new administration’s concern about mutations in the virus.

The South Africa variant has not been discovered in the United States, but another variant – originating in the United Kingdom – has been detected in several states.

Fauci said there is ‘a very slight, modest diminution’ of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against those variants but ‘there´s enough cushion with the vaccines that we have that we still consider them to be effective against both the UK strain and the South Africa strain.’

But he warned that more mutations are possible and said scientists are preparing to adapt the vaccines if necessary.

‘We really need to make sure that we begin, and we already have, to prepare if it’s necessary to upgrade the vaccines,’ Fauci said.

‘We’re already taking steps in that direction despite the fact that the vaccines we have now do work.’

And while infections, hospitalizations and deaths have seen a decline in recent days, a COVID-19 model is predicting that nearly 569,000 people will die by May 1.

The US has reported more than 25.3 million infections since the pandemic hit the country last year. At least 423,653 Americans have died from the virus. 

On Sunday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington shared the new forecast, which predicts a third wave of the coronavirus later this year if people don’t get vaccinated. 

The model does show a significant decrease in cases and deaths beginning in March and April, but it doesn’t account for the new variants of the coronavirus that have been found in the US. 

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