It’s the call no airline passenger wants to receive.
You are contacted after your plane lands to let you know a fellow traveler from your flight tested positive for COVID-19. The notification likely comes from local health officials with an advisory to go into 14-day self-quarantine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logged 1,600 COVID-19 investigations on commercial aircraft between January and August. By comparison, the agency had to deal with only about 150 cases of communicable diseases on flights in each of 2018 and 2019, usually the measles, reported spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey.
The cases fall to contact tracers, who may be hampered by incomplete, inaccurate or stale contact information for those they are trying to reach, the CDC says. There are challenges, too, that might explain why you didn’t get a call even if you were exposed:
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The airline industry, brought to a near halt in the spring by the coronavirus and still enduring deep losses due to a dearth of passengers, says it is doing all it can to cooperate with the contact tracing effort.
“We continue to believe that contact tracing is a key measure that will instill confidence for the traveling public that airlines and the federal government are prioritizing their health and safety,” said Carter Yang, spokesman for the leading industry trade group Airlines for America.
There is no evidence that any passenger has ever contracted the coronavirus from a commercial aircraft, which are equipped with HEPA filters and high-flow ventilation systems, he said. And airlines are full partners with the government in trying to limit the spread of the virus.
“U.S. airlines comply with all requests” when it comes to releasing manifest information on persons who were seated near an infected person on a flight, Yang said.
Southwest, too, with its open-seating policy, will release an entire flight’s passenger manifest if health authorities request it, said airline spokesman Brian Parrish.
The CDC agrees that airlines have been fully cooperative. Shockey said the public health agency and airlines have “a long history of working together” on contact investigations.
The problem, however, is that names on a list may not be enough.
On Feb. 12, a day after the U.S. reported its 13th coronavirus case, the CDC published a rule in the Federal Register aimed at trying to stop COVID-19 before it could ravage the U.S. population. The order required airlines to collect the full name, email address and primary and secondary phone numbers of every passenger and crew member arriving in the U.S. in case they were needed by contact tracers.
“If public health authorities had a valid phone number, the contact rate is between 91 and 100%. With only the address, the contact rate plummets to 44%. With only the name — currently, a common situation — the contact rate is only 8%,” the order stated to explain why it is needed.
Airlines said that the information required by the order would be hard to compile because current reservations systems aren’t built to handle it, and it is available by other means anyway.
Names and addresses are already collected for everyone leaving or arriving in the U.S. by Customs and Border Protection, wrote Airlines for America CEO Nicholas Calio in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Passengers may volunteer to give their email addresses and phone numbers to airlines when they book a ticket.
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In later writing Vice President Mike Pence, who has helmed the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Calio said the order would take a year to implement, doesn’t take privacy laws and international agreements into account and would cost airlines millions of dollars.
The International Air Transport Association said through spokesman Perry Flint that data collection should be a government, not an airline, responsibility.
Asked why the order was never has been enforced, the CDC referred calls to the White House. There, spokesman Judd Deere said “the White House continues to work with the airlines on the best solution to protect the health and safety of the public not only during this ongoing pandemic but for future ones as well.”
The situation flummoxes one travel industry expert.
“With very few business people traveling, airlines are now seeing a higher proportion of their reservations booked through direct channels like their websites and call centers,” Henry Harteveldt, analyst for the Atmosphere Research Group, said. “That should make it easier for an airline to reach a higher proportion of passengers if there was a COVID-positive passenger on a flight.”
Until then, contract tracers soldier on as passengers are urged to provide more information on their own. The CDC, in advising people to add their phone numbers to their airline reservations sums up the issue faces too many travelers:
“How will you know if you were exposed if no one can reach you?”
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