What happened: Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were completely ignored by the White House when they stated that the best available science shows that temperature checks are not a reliable tool for screening people for COVID-19. CDC scientists have requested that Trump administration officials completely remove the CDC from efforts to implement this plan at several major US airports.
Why it matters: When federal scientists are ignored, policymakers are more likely to fall out of line what the science suggests is the best way to protect people’s health and safety. In this specific case, the Trump administration is engaging in a strategy that is likely to provide a false sense of security during a pandemic, potentially endangering people’s lives.
The Trump administration is sidelining scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by ignoring their guidance to not move forward with a plan to screen passengers for a fever at airports. The scientists provided the administration with evidence showing that this is a highly ineffective way to determine if someone has COVID-19. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has already directed the Department of Homeland Security to publicly announce this plan.
This plan appears to be based primarily on political considerations rather than on scientific considerations. The Wall Street Journal reported that White House officials and senior officials from the Department of Homeland Security are pushing for thermal scanning in order to bolster consumer confidence in the safety of air travel and help jump-start the economy. The CDC and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), along with some congressional representatives, have raised concern that this plan falls out of line with the agencies’ mission statements and legal authority.
According to emails obtained by USA Today, CDC scientists objected to this plan and tried to get Trump administration officials to reconsider. Dr. Martin Cetron, the CDC’s director of global mitigation and quarantine, wrote to officials at the Department of Homeland Security saying, “Thermal scanning as proposed is a poorly designed control and detection strategy as we have learned very clearly. We should be concentrating our CDC resources where there is impact and a probability of mission success.” Dr. Cetron ended the email by saying, “Please kindly strike out CDC from this role.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration is planning on rolling out the temperature screenings at about a dozen US airports. It will consist of both hand-held thermal devices and tripods that can scan multiple people at once. Passengers with a reading of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will be flagged. Despite the CDC’s clear reticence about engaging in this plan, the Trump administration appears determined to include the CDC. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has said that passengers with fevers will be referred to the CDC for clearance. Another administrational official described something similar, saying that they will turn over people with high temperatures to CDC officials.
Scientists have expressed serious doubts about the effectiveness of fever checks at airports as a screening tool for COVID-19. While there are possible benefits, all evidence points to the procedure as being highly ineffectual. A modeling study from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control concluded that 75 percent of infected passengers at airports would be missed with thermal scanning and/or symptom checking. According to the CDC, of the 46,000 people screened from January 18 to February 23 at 11 US airports for fever, cough, and shortness of breath, only one person was found to have tested positive for COVID-19.
While a fever is one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, it is also a weak indicator of having COVID-19. A study of 5,700 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in New York City found that only 31 percent of patients developed a fever. Airport fever checks also fall out of line with the best available scientific information, since it is inevitable that the procedure will miss the vast majority of asymptomatic and presymptomatic people, people who can still spread the disease. Dr. Anthony Fauci estimated that 25 to 50 percent of the people infected with the novel coronavirus never show symptoms and a CDC study in Singapore documented the spread of the novel coronavirus before people exhibited symptoms.
TSA officials have also raised concerns that the temperature screening plan would end up being ineffectual, problematic, or even dangerous. During the COVID-19 pandemic, six TSA agents have died from the disease and more than 500 have contracted the virus; therefore, TSA officials are worried that this new plan could end up further endangering their employees. Additionally, some TSA officials have expressed concern about how the plan will be implemented. Specifically they say that thermal scanners on the market vary widely in reliability and accuracy and that there are major questions on how TSA agents can safely handle a person that is found to have a fever.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that policymakers carry out evidence-based measures to protect people; however, all evidence suggests that airport temperature screenings are highly ineffective at detecting COVID-19 cases. With CDC scientists being ignored in the process, the Trump administration appears to have developed this policy mainly as a way to satisfy political concerns. When science is sidelined during the governmental response to COVID-19, the government is putting at risk the health and safety of millions of Americans, which will likely result in many people losing their very lives.