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Trump’s Hasty New Coronavirus Screenings At US Airports Causes Chaos


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

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After weeks of declaring Covid-19 not a threat or under control, President Trump flicked the switch to major action, but at its first outing it probably made things worse. Gage Skidmore CC-by-SA-2.0

As the Covid-19 crisis took hold scientists in countries that were not yet hard hit called for action, often being ignored by political leaders and others with the capacity to do something. Once apathy and overconfidence ended however, responses have often continued to disregard advice on how best to tackle the problem. Indeed, some interventions are making things worse, at least initially, a situation best summed up by the situation at Chicago's O'Hare airport on the weekend.

Having spent weeks trivializing the virus, saying it was exaggerated and even calling it a hoax carried out by the Democrats to harm him, President Trump imposed travel restrictions on most European nations last week, prior to announcing a state of emergency. Besides preventing entry for foreign nationals who had been in these countries in the 14 days prior to arrival, returning US citizens were to experience increased screening.


Although the focus on new arrivals misses the point that the virus is already spreading within the United States, disease experts generally welcomed signs the situation was being taken more seriously. However, it's one thing to decide on the right course of action, it's another to implement it competently. It takes a lot of people and equipment to screen everyone arriving at a major international airport, and insufficient warning makes this hard to deploy.

The result was this:


The screenings were mostly just temperature tests that take about a minute, rather than viral swabs, but the bottleneck left thousands of people jammed together for up to 9 hours waiting to get tested.

With photos and videos going viral online, everyone is pointing out the same thing. It's fair to assume that when they landed only a few of these people had the virus. However, if even a small proportion of those were infectious, by the time they left the airport, the consequences will have been disastrous.


When the governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker tweeted about the need for the federal government to fix the situation, instead of assistance he received an abusive phone call from the White House about tweeting.

Thirteen airports were designated to take flights from Europe. Reports from travelers suggest the situation at O'Hare was the worst, but there are accounts of long delays at many others. Even as the crowding eased there were reports of other unwise behavior, such as an absence of hand sanitizer and passengers sharing pens to fill out forms. People also describe being allowed through without testing if they denied arriving from a country on the restriction list, with no checking that was the case, and a lack of fast-tracking or separate queues for immunocompromised people or the elderly.


There are also reports the Trump administration offered $1 billion to gain exclusive access to one of the vaccines under development in Europe for US use only, even trying to recruit the scientists working on it, even though they are based in Germany. Germany is on the list of countries where travel to the US has been restricted, and attempting to move a team during a crucial phase of their research would almost certainly delay the vaccine's availability. 

The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said they were not considering the offer, and the medical company was developing a vaccine “for the whole world, not for individual countries”, reports The Guardian.


Not everyone is handling things so badly, however. After South Korea became the first place after mainland China where the outbreak really took off, rates of new infection have been falling for almost two weeks, thanks to their intensive screening program. Though it's important to note South Korea experienced both the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 and the MERS outbreak in 2015, and thus has the infrastructure already in place for screening and containing an outbreak. Comparisons to other countries that haven't experienced outbreaks on this scale are perhaps not analogous.


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