This Tuesday, a Biden administration executive order began requiring coronavirus tests of all international travelers heading to the United States — including returning Americans. And on the same day the rule went into effect, U.S. health officials said they are considering extending the testing requirement to domestic travelers flying within the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s global migration director, Martin Cetron, told reporters in a news briefing Tuesday that the agency is holding “ongoing conversations” about testing for domestic travel because of the increased availability of testing in the United States. Cetron called air travel testing “one part of a comprehensive multilayered strategy” for containing variant strains of the coronavirus that are more contagious, and expressed confidence in American testing capacities for travel.
It was not long before advocates and critics of that proposal spoke up about the potential expansion of the order; on Wednesday the new head of the CDC endorsed Cetron’s comments in a news appearance, while one major U.S. travel group spoke out against the move.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a CNN town hall on Wednesday that a new national testing budget in Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which has not been passed, can and should be utilized for air travel, which she called a “high-risk activity.” Walensky also signaled the Biden administration may agree with such a move should the bill pass Congress.
“Now is not the time to be traveling, period, internationally or domestically, it’s just not a good time to be traveling,” Walensky said. “As part of the American Rescue [Plan] we have a budget for a lot more testing. Much of that budget is going to be testing in schools, but I would really like to see much of that budget, and I think the Biden administration [would] as well, to use it for high-risk activities, and one of those high-risk activities would be for travel, for domestic flights.”
On a call with the media, the U.S. Travel Association’s executive vice president of public affairs and policy, Tori Emerson Barnes, said the association is opposed to domestic testing because it would increase U.S. testing capacity by 42 percent, and make travel more expensive.
“That’s a substantial use of testing resources when air travel has already been shown to be safer than many routine activities,” Barnes said, citing a Harvard study that simulated virus spread in airplane cabins. However, doctors have pointed out that studies deeming travel safe do not account for some actual travel conditions, like movement in the cabin and crowded boarding areas.
Previous restrictions on U.S.-bound travel exempted returning Americans, but the new administration is so far being more stringent with its requirements. Last weekend, the CDC denied requests by U.S. airlines seeking waivers for travelers returning from destinations with scant testing capacities. The agency has ruled that exceptions to the testing requirement will only be permitted “when emergency travel (like an emergency medical evacuation) must occur to preserve someone’s life, health against a serious danger, or physical safety and testing cannot be completed before travel.”
The CDC also made clear this week that anyone attempting to fly to the United States without a coronavirus test in hand will be denied boarding by their airline, and the State Department said it will not be assisting with any testing of Americans who are stuck abroad due to its limited health resources.
“A domestic testing requirement would hamper not only the mobility of the country but put a huge further dent into the national economy,” the U.S. Travel Association’s Barnes said. “We really think it’s an extremely problematic proposition.”
Natalie Compton contributed to this report.
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