“I want to credit the staff at the state and local level for all the work they've done, but I have to share my frustration here because I can't believe that we’re having some of the conversations we're having now,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said.
“After having faced other global outbreaks such as H1N1 and SARs, did we not learn anything about processes and procedures from those previous diseases?” Duckworth said. “You know, Americans have been flying commercially for more than a century, yet today on the cusp of a global pandemic, the inability of the federal government to collect and share critical data effectively with U.S. airlines and local partners is really hindering our ability to stop the spread and fight this disease.”
Duckworth’s comments, at a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on aviation and space, came as California announced its first coronavirus-linked death, bringing the death toll in the United States to 11, and as the House passed an $8.3 billion emergency spending package to respond to the outbreak.
Witnesses at the hearing, which focused on the role of global aviation in containing the spread of infectious diseases, included representatives from the U.S. Transportation Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of which have a role.
“I think we have improved since really — my own history is, begins with the mid-2000s,” said Stephen Redd, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness Response at the CDC. “I think we’re far ahead of where we were at that point in time.”
Redd said officials will use lessons from this experience to come up with strategies that will help with future outbreaks.
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. airline executives met with Vice President Pence, who has been charged with leading the administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak. President Trump made a surprise appearance at the gathering, where airline executives emphasized their commitment to keeping their customers and employees safe.
“Certainly the industry wants to do everything we can do keep Americans safe,” Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Gary Kelly said. “We've stepped up our efforts to make sure the airplanes are clean and we have the proper protocols in place whenever there is a suspected illness.”
But the industry and federal health officials remain at odds over a key element of the effort to track the spread of the virus — the sharing of contact information for passengers coming to the United States on select international flights.
Federal health officials want airlines to provide the information so that if they discover someone on the flight has the virus, they want to make sure they can contact people who may have been exposed to the infected person.
Last month, an interim federal rule was published requiring airlines to provide contact information, including the full name, email, phone numbers and a U.S. address for passengers within 24 hours after a request by the director of the CDC. Under the current system it can take up to 14 days for health officials to get the information.
The airlines have pushed back, saying the task should be the responsibility of the federal government, which already has much of the information.
Airline executives are backing a proposal to create a website and mobile app that would allow passengers to send their information directly to the CDC.
“We have thought — and still think — that building a website and developing an app would be the quickest way to obtain verifiable and accurate contact info,” said Nicholas E. Calio, chief executive of Airlines for America, which represents carriers. “We have been urging [Health and Human Services] and CDC to do so for weeks. Other countries have already accomplished this and so should the U.S.”
The proposal seemed to have won the support from at least two committee members, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)
“I believe that provides a real opportunity for us to address this contact tracing issue in a matter of several weeks rather than six to 12 months,” Sinema said. “That’s something I hope we can work together on and consider how to implement that quickly.”
Representatives from CDC, the Transportation Department and Customs and Border Protection said barring technical challenges, such a system could work.
Currently, Customs and Border Protection collects passenger information on paper forms that are input by hand and then sent to CDC. The system works, the agency said, because flight restrictions mean that only about 1,000 passengers a day meet the criteria for data collection. But the agency said it has the ability to scale up if the numbers grow. Normally, the number of passengers arriving from just China is around 15,000 a day.
“We are told we can get the app done in two weeks and the website would be up and running in four weeks,” Calio said. “We have offered to pay for construction of the website and give it to the U.S. government for their use.”