CDC will end its screening of inbound passengers next week


If international air travel is ever going to open up again in the age of coronavirus, it’s becoming apparent that some kind of fast and efficient COVID-19 testing program will be required at airports. With the U.S. government’s decision to stop its current ineffective policy of checking international arrivals next week, it looks like the private sector might have to take up that task – and that’s starting to happen, too.

For several months now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has mandated that international flights from many countries arrive at 15 U.S. airports staffed and equipped to scan passengers for COVID-19. But the screening process has been skimpy at best: It only requires travelers to fill out a health questionnaire and submit to a temperature check, measures that do nothing to identify many asymptomatic individuals who could be bringing the disease into the country. So the CDC has now decreed an end to that program effective Sept 14.

CDC’s “enhanced entry health screening” is currently required for arrivals from China, Iran, the U.K., the Schengen countries of Europe, Brazil and Ireland. Starting next week, CDC said, it will replace the existing procedures with “more effective mitigation efforts that focus on the individual passenger” – like better education about COVID-19, voluntary collection of contact information from travelers by electronic means, “potential” testing for COVID-19, and “post-arrival passenger recommendations for self-monitoring.”

But there’s nothing like an actual COVID-19 medical test to identify individuals who are safe for international travel, and that’s what the U.S. and many other nations don’t yet have in place. Airlines and the travel industry are increasingly putting pressure on governments to develop and deploy rapid testing for COVID (a test that doesn’t produce results for two or three days or more isn’t much help for travelers) in order to get the wheels of global travel turning again – especially in the transatlantic market.

In the U.S., it looks like the private sector will have to take up the task since the government has shown little interest in it.

We’re starting to see the first signs of movement in that area. Private COVID testing centers have spring up at a few select airports (including SFO), mainly for use by airline and airport employees, TSA staff and other workers. But one company is setting its sights on travelers.

XpresSpa Group, which has spa locations at a number of U.S. and overseas airports, has created a new division called XpresCheck that is converting space at some of its locations into COVID testing centers for passengers as well as airport workers. The company recently announced that it signed a contract with Abbott Labs for 100 testing units that reduce the waiting time for COVID test results from 48 hours to 15 minutes, with plans to put the devices into use this month at its XpresCheck locations in New York JFK Terminal 4 (Delta) and Newark Liberty International Terminal B.

“These point-of-care tests are critical to enhancing early detection because of their portability, speed, and reliability which can accelerate care, reduce viral spread, and help people get on the road to recovery sooner,” said Doug Satzman, CEO of XpresSpa Group. “We’ve already identified 60 large hub and medium hub airports and are in advanced discussions to open additional locations. Our expansion plan includes offering a range of appropriate services and treatments too.”

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In Germany, Lufthansa and a private company called Centogene have set up a walk-in coronavirus testing center at Frankfurt Airport for arriving and departing passengers. It has been in operation all summer and has conducted tests on more than 150,000 passengers.

“On average, about one percent of the samples were positive during the last six weeks. Over 97 percent of the COVID-19 test results were digitally transmitted to passengers in August 2020 in less than 24 hours,” Lufthansa reported. “Passengers who had registered for the test in advance only had to wait approximately 20 minutes before being tested. Most of them came from Spain, followed by the USA, Turkey and Croatia.”

The testing center at Frankfurt Airport was recently enlarged and can now handle 10,000 tests per day, “which is more than sufficient even at times of high demand,” the airline said. Although it is open to anyone, special fast lanes at the center are available to Lufthansa Group elite travelers and first and business class customers. A few weeks ago, the airline opened another testing center in Hamburg Airport.

XpresSpa has dozens of airport locations that can convert space into XpresCheck COVID testing centers. Photo: XpresSpa

XpresSpa has dozens of airport locations that can convert space into XpresCheck COVID testing centers.

Meanwhile, the travel industry continues to beg the federal government to step up and play a role in developing a pilot program for fast COVID testing of international travelers. This week, a coalition of 18 travel and aviation industry groups sent a letter to top Trump Administration officials urging them to launch a pilot program of speedy testing.

“There are many complexities surrounding COVID-19 testing; a globally accepted framework for testing protocols for international travel must be established. We urge the U.S. to partner with Europe, Canada, or the Pacific, to form a basis for evaluating the efficacy of such a program, while collaborating with the aviation and travel industry to chart a path forward,” the group said.

It noted that any pilot programs should focus on “the availability and reliability of rapid diagnostic tests that can be conducted within a reasonable time window prior to departure; engagement with key international partners to ensure U.S. tests would be accepted; and assurance of privacy protections and traveler control of sensitive health information.”

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Chris McGinnis is SFGATE’s senior travel correspondent. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t miss a shred of important travel news by signing up for his FREE weekly email updates!

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