Multiple pressure points have undermined the administration’s efforts to keep the virus from entering the country — and now threaten to hasten its spread.
Massive lines ballooned across several U.S. airports this weekend as European travelers made a mad dash for home — a situation created by a confluence of missteps and policy choices by the Trump administration, including chronic airport staffing shortages and a flawed rollout of his European travel ban.
U.S. officials promised Sunday to address the most visible sign of the chaos — the jam-packed terminals where Americans returning to the U.S. are waiting hours for virus screening at several major airports, including Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Fort Worth and Dulles International. But those lines are just one of a series of pressure points that have undermined the administration’s efforts to keep the virus from entering the country — and now threaten to hasten its spread:
— The administration’s European travel ban, which President Donald Trump announced Wednesday and went into effect Friday night, sent Americans abroad scrambling to find plane tickets back home. U.S. officials eventually clarified that the ban didn’t apply to American citizens or permanent residents — but by then, panic-buying most likely inflated the number of people trying to reenter at once.
— The administration also dramatically narrowed the number of places where air travelers returning from Europe could enter the U.S. — currently just 13 airports. At the same time, Customs and Border Protection and health officials on Friday began doing “enhanced screening” for those passengers, consisting of temperature checks and questions about travel history and symptoms, without having enough staff on hand to process them quickly.
— Customs staffing levels have been inadequate for some time. The union representing Customs screeners said at a hearing in December that the force was short 2,700 officers, partly as a result of the administration’s decision to temporarily reassign people to the U.S.-Mexican border.
— In the early weeks of the outbreak, the administration was slow to ramp up screening at international airports, even for travelers re-entering the United States from known coronavirus hot spots. Harvard public health researchers warned in early March that the screening procedures in place then would miss as many as two-thirds of U.S.-bound passengers entering the U.S.
Now, public health officials are expressing concern that the passengers crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in airport screening lines are at higher risk for catching and then spreading the virus.
“It’s not good public health policy to have crowds of people in tight spaces, especially people who are returning from places where we know there’s widespread transmission occurring,” said John Auerbach, president, and CEO of Trust for America’s Health. He added that there should be serious consideration of the unintended consequences of the policies being implemented.