The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday night issued a coronavirus testing mandate for American citizens and others flying from the United Kingdom, a move U.S. officials hope will thwart a new faster-spreading variant of the virus without banning passenger flights.
The move could potentially affect tens of thousands of travelers per month but it stops short of an outright halt, as dozens of other nations, including Canada, have done.
The decision follows President Donald Trump’s order in March barring entry to the U.S. by many foreign nationals who had been in the U.K. in the previous 14 days . “This additional testing requirement will fortify our protection of the American public to improve their health and safety and ensure responsible international travel,” the CDC said in a statement.
Passengers must get a viral test – meaning one that detects current infections – within three days of their flight, the CDC said. Travelers are required to provide airlines written documentation of the results. PCR or antigen tests are both considered acceptable. The order will be signed Christmas Day, and will be effective on Dec. 28.
Officials in Washington took action after some state officials had loudly called for federal intervention.
On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the U.S. should follow the lead of other countries and “halt travel until we know what we’re talking about and we know the facts.” Cuomo had also pressed airlines flying into New York to require testing, and he said this week that British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic had agreed to do so.
Airlines also have flights to Newark, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Philadelphia, and Seattle.
British officials have been alarmed at the swift spread of the new variant, and are also concerned about an even faster-spreading mutation identified in South Africa. Researchers say there is no evidence either variant of the coronavirus is more deadly, and they’re hopeful existing vaccines will combat them effectively. It is also possible the vaccines could quickly be updated if changes are needed, they said.
“Viruses constantly change through mutation, and preliminary analysis in the UK suggests that this new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than previously circulating variants,” the CDC said.
Experts said the mutations could already be working their way, undetected, through American communities, where coronavirus testing and the sequencing to track variants is less far-reaching than in many other countries.
The CDC notes on its website that a negative test result means a person was probably not infected when their sample was taken. But it could also mean “your sample was collected too early in your infection” and you could still become sick.
Given the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus across the United States, there has been some debate among U.S. officials about whether banning flights made sense from a public health perspective. Federal officials ultimately decided testing was the better approach. More than 328,000 people have died of covid in the U.S.
Canada issued a 72-hour ban on flights from the U.K. Sunday, and on Wednesday extended the prohibition for two more weeks, until Jan. 6, “so we can prevent this new variant of covid-19 from spreading in Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
President Trump had issued a proclamation partially banning travel from the United Kingdom in March, though there were numerous exceptions, including for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as some relatives.
Travel fell sharply, but thousands of people have continued to fly to the U.S. from the United Kingdom each month.
According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics and aviation data firm Cirium, more than 13,600 passengers flew directly from the United Kingdom to the U.S. in June.
That figure has continued to climb, and Airlines For America, the industry advocacy group, said total passengers arriving from London’s Heathrow Airport topped 30,000 in November.
Drew Harris, a population health analyst, said the new variant is a cause for caution, but much remains unknown.
Harris said the administration’s partial travel ban from March, which remains in effect, was “very porous.”
“There’s no sense of having a travel ban if you allow American citizens,” permanent residents and other exceptions, said Harris, who recently retired from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He said testing is a useful step.
“If people are coming in, then it’s important they be tested to determine if they’re bringing the new strain in with them,” Harris said. “As bad as things are in the United States, they could get worse if we had a faster spreading virus. But we don’t know that just yet.”