There’s little question that the CDC performed badly during this global coronavirus pandemic. Not only did poor execution cause major delays in rolling out testing, but it still fails at a basic mission of collecting and disseminating crucial data about U.S. infections.
The executive branch, though, wanted to give the CDC a mission: checking temperatures of airline passengers at 20 airports. The CDC, though, declined saying it wasn’t likely to be effective (due to asymptomatic spread) and it may not be legal. They responded to the Department of Homeland Security “Please kindly strike out CDC from this role.”
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pressed ahead anyway, directing the DHS to announce the airport screenings, which would be visible and instill confidence in travelers, according to meeting notes.
Passengers with fever, Meadows said, would be referred to the CDC for clearance. The full plan has not yet been finalized.
While temperature checks may not stop the virus, they do represent something akin to security theater, a sign that the government is doing something which might make some people feel safer to travel. Southwest Airlines has publicly asked the TSA to do temperature checks, and Frontier Airlines is preparing to begin doing this themselves.
We certainly don’t want sympomatic COVID-19 patients spreading the virus anywhere including on planes, but that’s likely not the greatest threat (people with a fever often know they have it, most though not all will stay home). The risk is from people close to showing symptoms. However even rapid testing can have a significant error rate, so may not be a panacea either.