Coronavirus: Trump’s travel ban to China was full of holes

President Trump has repeatedly credited his February ban to travelers from mainland China as his signature move against the advance of the coronavirus pandemic, a “strong wall” that only allowed entry of US citizens, he boasted in May.

But the Trump wall was more like a sieve.

Exempt were thousands of residents of the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macao. An analysis of Commerce Department travel entry records and private aviation data obtained by the Associated Press show that nearly 8,000 Chinese nationals and foreign residents of the territories entered the US on more than 600 commercial and private flights. in the first three months after the imposition of the ban. .

When US residents flying from mainland China arrived at US airports, the system intended to tag and monitor them for missing symptoms from at least 1,600 people in the first days that the ban It went into effect, according to an internal state government email obtained by the AP.

Trump continues to praise his administration’s ban: “We did a great job on CoronaVirus, including China’s very early ban,” he tweeted last week. “We save millions of lives in the United States!”

Trump announced on January 31 the original travel ban on any non-US resident who has recently been to mainland China. His decision came weeks after Chinese officials acknowledged that a highly contagious and deadly new virus was spreading throughout Wuhan City.

Travelers from Hong Kong and Macao were exempt from that ban. They did not face the same improved detection and quarantine procedures that are required for Americans and others returning from Wuhan and other parts of mainland China.

Flight records provided to the AP by FlightAware, an international aviation tracking company, show that more than 5,600 Chinese and foreign nationals from the two administrative zones flew to the United States in February. Those totals fell to 2,100 in March and just 150 in April, Commerce Department trade entry records show.

There is no clear evidence that the small but steady flow of people from Hong Kong and Macao introduced COVID-19 cases within the US in January or the following four months, but the exemptions “certainly undermined the purpose of the ban, “said Dr. Ronald Waldman, professor of global health at George Washington University.

None of the agencies involved in developing and announcing the travel ban (the National Security Council, the State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Health and Human Services) would publicly comment on the AP on why Hong Kong and Macao was exempt. In a brief statement, the State Department did not “comment on internal policy decisions” and referred to the White House, which did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation.

When Trump’s travel restrictions took effect on February 2, at least 15 cases of the new coronavirus had already been detected in Hong Kong, including one death, and seven more cases were found in Macao. All of Macao’s initial cases dated back to the outbreak in Wuhan.

As of this week, Hong Kong had recorded 1,248 cases and seven deaths and Macao had 46 cases. Even with those total lows, Hong Kong has struggled with at least three spikes in COVID-19 cases: one in late February, another in mid-March, and an increase of more than 130 cases in the past two weeks.

CDC’s warnings about Hong Kong and Macao have been raised to the agency’s highest alert level, urging Americans to “avoid all non-essential travel.”

Since that time, there has been a rollover. Hong Kong has banned US citizens and other international travelers from arriving by air.

If the flow of Americans going to Hong Kong and Macao was stifled, the flow of Americans and others returning to the US from mainland China did not decrease. Also, the program to detect them had real problems.

Federal health officials planned to channel the thousands of people returning from China through 11 airports for health screenings over several weeks. Those with symptoms would be quarantined by the CDC. Others would be allowed to continue on their way, but would be supervised by state and local health departments, who would be responsible for contacting travelers within 72 hours to advise them to isolate themselves for two weeks and monitor if they developed symptoms.

The effort immediately ran into trouble.

“Hearing news from people who are already filtering through the detection system and who end up in states with no pipelining airports,” a CDC employee wrote to several state health officials on February 6, shortly after the program, according to an email obtained by AP through A Request for Public Records. “I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but it’s started.”

CDC spokesman Scott Pauley said the agency did not obtain accurate traveler information from Department of Homeland Security customs officials, who were responsible for collecting passenger data at airports.

The CDC said about 26,000 travelers from China were screened throughout February. The agency acknowledged that the data problems contributed to thousands of notifications being sent to state health departments. Because of these problems, the CDC has issued a rule requiring airlines to report passenger data directly to the agency during public health crises.

Even when notifications were sent out to states, the information was unreliable, frustrating local officials concerned with contacting them quickly enough to prevent any spread.

“There was a lot of bad information,” said Fran Phillips, Maryland’s assistant secretary of public health services.

The data was riddled with bad phone numbers, wrong itineraries, and people who claimed they had never been to China. Because the CDC was unable to verify the information, the agency told local officials they were confident that the people were telling the truth, according to internal notes shared among California state officials.