As countries including Canada and Britain have lifted their Covid testing requirements for vaccinated visitors in recent months, some Americans are angry that they still have to show a negative test to board a flight back to the States. Joined.
Jason Miller, a 37-year-old software engineer living in Texas, is so frustrated with the rule that he recently sent letters to the White House and several lawmakers and began encouraging others to do the same. “I support the CDC, I still wear an N95 mask when I’m in crowds and when I travel,” he said. But he no longer feels the rule provides value, largely because “testing hasn’t stopped variants from entering the country.”
Other travelers have posted similar comments on social media, and much of the US travel industry has made it clear that they feel the same way.
But they have gotten little satisfaction from the Biden administration and public health officials.
On May 6, Jen Psaki, then the White House press secretary, said she was “not aware of a timeline” for ending the testing requirement and that the administration would base its decision on a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control. and Disease Prevention. As for what, specifically, the CDC is using to determine if testing is still necessary, an agency spokeswoman offered the vague explanation that it “is looking at different indicators” and “evaluating all of the more science-based guidelines and orders.” recent and the state of the science”. pandemic.”
Mandatory testing has not only created logistical problems, but has fundamentally changed the experience of traveling internationally, travelers say.
“It was always top of mind in my mind,” said Danielle Bradbury, 42, who recently spent 12 days in Israel for her work developing medical devices while her husband cared for their two children in Boston. “Every time I left the hotel I asked myself, what risk am I putting myself in if I can’t get home?”
Why were the tests started in the first place?
In January 2021, when the CDC first instituted a rule that all US-bound travelers over the age of 2 had to show either a negative test or a recovery test before boarding a flight, the United States The United States joined a sea of countries experimenting with different ways to slow down. the virus has spread across borders. A State Department statement announcing the requirement highlighted the difficulty of obtaining a test abroad, suggesting the rule was also intended to discourage Americans from traveling internationally. At the time, fewer than 10 percent of Americans were vaccinated and the number of cases was rising, reaching a record high of more than 300,000 new cases on January 8.
The tests were not the first travel limitation implemented by the United States. In the winter of 2020, President Trump banned visitors from China, much of Europe, Brazil, and Iran. When President Biden took office, he superimposed the testing requirement on travel bans. (He also extended the ban to India.)
In late 2021, the United States moved away from country-specific bans and doubled down on testing, shortening the three-day travel window to one day, even for vaccinated Americans. By then it had become clear that vaccinated people could also spread the coronavirus. (Most unvaccinated foreign visitors were barred from entering the country, even with tests.)
How effective has the policy been?
It depends on how you define success, said Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, a professor of health policy at Stanford University. If the success was reducing the number of infected people flying into the United States, he said, the testing requirement did it.
“It certainly prevented people who have tested positive from getting on planes and it almost certainly prevented some amount of transmission on planes and in airports,” he said.
However, the exact number of infected people who were prevented from boarding planes is unknown because no one tracks whether a passenger cancels a flight due to Covid. Most of the evidence is anecdotal; a lot of people have stories about testing positive before flying home.
If success means keeping new variants out of the country, then it has failed, said Dr. William Omrice, chairman of laboratory medicine and pathology at the Mayo Clinic.
“The reality is that none of these measures have prevented the rapid global spread of any variant of concern,” he said.
But if the success was not in preventing the arrival of new variants, but in delaying their arrival so that hospitals and authorities could be more prepared, then it may have worked. Mark Jit, a professor of vaccine epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied the effectiveness of travel requirements, said this is what the tests do well.
“Testing can prevent the peak from being reached so quickly,” he said.
Still, he found that once a variant is already widespread in a country, a travel test has little effect.
Why are many countries getting rid of testing requirements now?
Authorities’ explanations include a readiness to enter a new phase of the pandemic, high vaccination rates, and a determination that the new variants are manageable.
“The current variant is making people sick less and the number of people going into intensive care is limited,” the Dutch government said in a typical statement in March, when it ended travel tests, among other Covid-related recommendations. .
What is the argument for getting rid of the US requirement?
The main argument is that you’re not doing enough to rationalize the hassle.
Dr. Tom Frieden, who was the director of the CDC during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, was among those who made this point. “Between the super-effective vaccines we have and Paxlovid, which is a super-effective treatment, Omicron is less lethal than the flu most years and we don’t require people to get tested for the flu before they get on a plane,” he said. the. “If a more dangerous variant emerges,” he noted, “that’s a very different situation.”
Others argue that there is no point in bothering so many people about a system that is full of holes. Antigen tests, an option for travelers to the United States, are notoriously unreliable early in infection, said Anne Wyllie, a microbiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. That is why she called the demand “hygiene theatre”.
The test requirement is not only annoying to travelers, it’s financially damaging, according to the US Travel Association, a trade group. In a recent letter to Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the White House Covid coordinator, signed by more than 260 businesses, including airlines, cruise operators, casinos, tourism boards, Disney parks and a zoo, the group said that “The economic costs associated with maintaining the measure are significant.”
“Given the slow economic recovery in the international business and travel sectors, and in light of medical advances and improved public health metrics in the US, we encourage you to immediately remove the inbound testing requirement for travelers. vaccinated airlines,” the group wrote.
A survey commissioned by the group found that 46 percent of international travelers would be more likely to visit the United States without the requirement. A similar survey by Points Guy, a site that specializes in traveling with credit card points and miles, found that more than half of its participating readers would be more likely to travel abroad without the requirement.
What is the argument for maintaining the policy?
Meegan Zickus, who runs a Facebook group for people with weakened immune systems, said testing has become more important since the mask requirement has been lifted. Without a testing requirement, most travelers won’t bother getting tested or staying home, even if they suspect they’re infected, she said.
“Judging from the last two years, the only way to protect others is some kind of forced trial,” he said, because “the moral compass points squarely at oneself.”
Dr. Seema Yasmin, a public health physician and director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative, echoed this point. “I would say it can provide a high level of reassurance when 75 percent of people are not wearing a mask and may even be coughing and sneezing loudly,” said Dr. Yasmin.
(Although airplane ventilation systems appear to significantly mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, research suggests that people sitting in a few rows still pose a risk to others.)
“Some tests are better than none,” said Nathaniel Hafer, a molecular biologist at the UMass School of Medicine.
Many countries also use the tests to incentivize vaccination by waiving the requirement for vaccinated people, said Meghan Benton, director of research at the Migration Policy Institute, which tracks travel requirements. The United States encourages vaccination in its own way by barring entry to most unvaccinated foreign visitors.
Could a lawsuit end testing the way the mask mandate did?
With at least four lawsuits currently pending challenging the international proof requirement, some wonder if it could be struck down by a judge’s decision, as the requirement to wear a mask on planes and other forms of transportation was in April.
Lawrence O. Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown Law, doesn’t think so. The CDC can require testing of visitors entering the country from abroad because of the Public Health Services Act, which was created explicitly to prevent the introduction of dangerous infectious diseases into the United States, he said.
The rule, he said, “would be extremely difficult for even the most conservative judges to challenge successfully in court.”