The U.S. is now considering requiring testing not just for international travel back to the U.S. but for domestic travel as well.
The Biden administration is “actively looking” at expanding mandatory COVID-19 testing to travelers on U.S. domestic flights, a senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said on Tuesday.
On a call with reporters, Dr. Marty Cetron, director for the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at CDC, was asked about whether new domestic travel testing requirements might be employed. Cetron replied that there were “conversations that are ongoing and looking at what the types and locations of testing might be… We’re actively looking at it.”
There may have been merit in this a year ago. Now it’s unlikely to make a big difference. Both in the past, and now, the challenge for effectiveness is availability of cheap widespread at-home tests that people can take every day. Ultimately my guess is we don’t get there until it’s cheap and easy because of the strength of airline lobbies, unless it’s paired with a third government bailout to buy them off as a constituency.
- Early in the pandemic the government discussed shutting down domestic air travel, not just bans on certain travelers from China, Europe, etc. This isn’t a new idea.
- Shutting down travel has been important in places like New Zealand and Australia. In Australia you couldn’t travel between states (unless you lived right on the border where you might get a permit to cross). This is harder to accomplish in the United States, with more porous borders, 60 undocumented immigrants were just found staying in a Texas hotel. Even if testing requirements applied to land borders, it wouldn’t have applied to them..
- These bans were blunt instruments because we lacked adequate testing at the time. We didn’t know where the virus was or to what degree. That’s why in many parts of the country shutdowns came too early, we shut down in places where there simply wasn’t meaningful virus spread and ‘wasted’ that part of the toolkit. And the lack of testing was because the FDA wouldn’t allow non-CDC tests, and CDC tests didn’t work – we were blind.
- Now the virus is spreading rampantly throughout the community (though cases and hospitalizations seem to have plateaued and even perhaps have started to fall to a still very-elevated level). Shutting down domestic travel won’t stop that, though there’s concern about stopping spread of mutating strains of the virus – the South African and Brazlian strains seem to present the greatest risk at the moment.
- Testing is imperfect, especially 3 days before travel and antigen tests (which are great identifying current infectiousness but less good at finding future infectiousness).
- In order for a domestic travel testing requirement to work we need cheap, real-time testing. And at that point it could be used for more than domestic travel, but by restaurants. They could ensure all diners that everyone has just tested so it’s safer to dine inside.
Widespread cheap at-home self-testing would do a lot to cut down on spread of the virus, and could be used by travel companies and others to open up broadly. This would allow for more travel, more dining, more life rather than less.
Testing is cheaper and more available than it was months ago, but health bureaucrats need to worry less about 100% accuracy and demand 100% results reporting to the government. $1-$2 paper strips that people could use on their own every day, and link results to an app that showed they’re clear to engage in activities for the day, would make a huge difference.
Just imposing requirements for travel, without solving the regulatory hurdles to cheap available regular testing, isn’t likely to contain the virus while still incurring significant costs.
Continued infection and vaccination will hopefully bring the virus under control over the next four months, such that any policy may look successful.