Starting January 26 the U.S. will require a negative Covid-19 test within 3 days prior to departure, or documentation of having already recovered from Covid-19, for everyone arriving in the country (citizens and non-citizens alike). I told you this was coming two weeks ago.
Announcing the policy two weeks in advance gives travelers currently abroad time to get back to the U.S. or to organize required testing, and gives airlines time to set up procedures to verify documentation for all U.S. inbound travelers.
Air passengers are required to get a viral test (a test for current infection) within the 3 days before their flight to the U.S. departs, and provide written documentation of their laboratory test result (paper or electronic copy) to the airline or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19. Airlines must confirm the negative test result for all passengers or documentation of recovery before they board. If a passenger does not provide documentation of a negative test or recovery, or chooses not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding to the passenger.
This applies to air passengers only. Anyone who wishes will still be able to fly to Mexico for instance, and drive across the U.S. border.
Likely To Have Little Public Health Benefit
With the virus spreading rapidly in the community already, travel restrictions have only modest public health benefit.
- Countries like Australia and New Zealand, which are containing the virus, need to continue to work hard to keep it out.
- Adding incremental cases in the U.S., which is already seeing 200,000 or more positive tests a day, doesn’t materially change the course of the pandemic here.
- However one fewer case may be one fewer person needing an ICU bed, in places where beds have become scarce. Yet the U.S. isn’t doing anything to limit domestic travel to those places.
U.S. travel restrictions were ineffective at the start of the pandemic because the CDC performed poorly. Testing requirements are enforced by airlines and more likely to be applied consistently as a result.
Even the new U.K. variant is already spreading in the U.S. However genomic surveillance is limited – with the CDC testing 10 samples per state, every other week. So we don’t even know how widespread it is. And the new requirement doesn’t go into effect for two weeks, during which time it’s likely more variants are coming here.
The vaccine rollout is the most important area that needs improvement to control the pandemic. That, combined with the immunity built up from the high cost of rapid spread of the virus, will likely bring Covid-19 under control. We are a few weeks away from having data on just how much vaccination limits spread, as opposed to just protecting the vaccinated against symptomatic Covid, however there’s confidence from vaccine manufacturers that this will be meaningful. BioNTech’s CEO at the end of January or early February.
The decision of the Trump administration to release all of the federal government’s supply of vaccine, advancing the timeline of a policy the Biden transition team announced it would pursue, should accelerate vaccinations and operate as a de facto ‘first doses first‘ policy – getting perhaps 80% protection to twice as many people. It’s unclear how long one-dose protection lasts, but the hope and expectation is that production ramp up will mean that while some second doses may get delayed they won’t be delayed for long.
Testing for all international arrivals isn’t ultimately how the U.S. can end the pandemic, and it isn’t how we can keep the B.1.1.7 strain (or South African strain or other mutations) from spreading.
The New Testing Requirement Is A Blow To Travel
Here’s why this testing requirement is going to be an impediment to travel.
- Testing isn’t as widespread in much of the world as it is in the U.S. so access to testing becomes a limit on where you can go. The U.S. has conducted more tests per capita than 90% of countries including Hong Kong,, Spain, Italy, France, Norway, Australia, Sweden, Germany and Canada. Testing is scarce in Egypt, Mexico, and virtually non-existent in Tanzania.
If you’re on an atoll in the Maldives, can you even get tested to return home? Some hotels will organize this. But uncertainty will cause many people to have to cancel their trips even though the country allows U.S. visitors with their own testing requirement.
- Short trips become impractical since you need to spend time getting tested, and wait long enough to get results before flying home. This is going to eliminate most two- and three-day weekend trips. You might have considered flying to Cancun, arriving Thursday evening. Even if you could spend your day getting tested, you’re butting up against the weekend and may not have results back in time to fly home Sunday.
- The added cost will eliminate most short leisure trips. Mexico is an attractive destination because it’s close and cheap, but testing may cost more than airfare. Doubling the flight cost makes it uneconomical.
You might think that required testing could give people greater confidence to travel, but for many of the trips that will see reduced demand it’s only a requirement for the flight home – you’re often traveling on the way out with people that haven’t been tested. So there’s not even the confidence-building that comes from testing to offset the inconvenience.
The problem is that this requirement is likely to remain in place for far too long, and that would mean a long-term drag on activity. The ban on travel from China, put in place in January, remains in effect even though the pandemic has largely been under control there for 9 months.
Even if the vaccine rollout improves, and the U.S. gets its outbreak under control this summer, will testing still be required? Some will hail the decline in Covid-19 that would have happened naturally as a success of this policy and call to keep it in place to ensure Covid-19 remains in check.