Are more coronavirus travel restrictions coming? Experts say they only delay the inevitable

2020-03-05 17:45:53

Should Americans expect to see domestic travel restricted because of coronavirus? Not likely, medical and emergency planning experts say.

Though travel restrictions, such as the ones the Trump administration imposed in the past month on international travelers entering the United States from certain countries, can slow the spread of an infectious disease, they can’t stop it.

“I think it’s out of the bag,” said Stephen Gluckman, the director of global medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. 

On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters there has been no talk of limiting travel in the United States.

Earlier in the outbreak, U.S. officials restricted entry from China, where the disease originated and which still has the most coronavirus cases, but where the infection rate is slowing down. The number of cases continues to grow in South Korea, Iran and Italy, and coronavirus is spreading in Europe and the United States.

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On Wednesday, a California man became the first coronavirus-related death in the state. He is thought to have been exposed to the virus on a cruise trip last month. Also Wednesday, a medical screener who worked at Los Angeles International Airport tested positive for coronavirus. His last shift at LAX was on Feb. 21, and his symptoms began to appear a week later.

Bottom line: The virus is difficult for authorities to track, because people who become infected may not show any symptoms for a week or two, or they may never develop symptoms. The cases in California demonstrate the limited effectiveness of travel restrictions that public health officials have long understood. 

A World Health Organization study in 2014 found domestic travel restrictions in the United States would delay the spread of a severe influenza outbreak by two to three weeks.

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted the limited effect of international travel restrictions, with 1.1 million people crossing into U.S. borders on a typical day.

“Our border measures might provide an opportunity to slow the spread of a pandemic to the United States, but are unlikely to prevent it,” the CDC wrote in a report then. “The sheer volume of traffic and the difficulty of developing screening protocols to detect an influenza-like illness pose significant challenges.”

Gluckman said it might be possible to further slow the spread by isolating people in areas with large clusters of infections, like authorities have done in the most-affected regions of Italy and China. Washington state has the highest number of cases in the country, with 70 as of Thursday, according to the state’s health department. Ten people there have died. 

The ultimate fix, however, could be months away.

“What’s going to stop it is a vaccine,” Gluckman said.

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Cutting back on travel

Private employers, universities and government agencies have already taken steps on their own.

Nationwide, companies are increasingly telling their employees to avoid nonessential travel or large gatherings such as conferences. Universities have canceled their study abroad programs in affected countries and asked students and faculty to return home. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention itself is canceling nonessential employee travel and encouraging workers to telecommute.

Airlines have cut back on international and domestic flight schedules as travelers have canceled or changed their plans. Airlines, hotels and cruise operators have waived some change fees in response to the outbreak.

The nation’s largest domestic airline, Southwest, has seen a “very noticeable, precipitous decline in bookings” in the past week, a decline that continues daily, CEO Gary Kelly said in an interview with CNBC on Thursday. 

Kelly noted the significant flight cuts competitor United Airlines announced Wednesday to cope with weak travel demand and said Southwest will consider trimming some flights if the bookings decline continues. In addition to United, JetBlue Airways said it plans to cut flight capacity by 5%.

State, local agencies take the lead

Brock Long, who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2017 to 2019 and is now executive director of Hagerty Consulting, said social distancing likely to become more widespread.

“Americans need to be thinking about how they will handle a shelter in place for a couple of weeks if the government asks them to do so,” he said.

Long said the federal government will likely provide a supporting role to state and local officials but leave a lot of decision-making up to them. For example, the governors of FloridaWashington and California have declared states of emergency. Long said to expect other states will do the same, as well as cities and counties.

“We need to brace for a lot more of states of emergency in the next couple of weeks,” Long said.

Gluckman said he would advise older Americans and those with underlying health conditions to avoid traveling. But, he said, people can still get illness if they don’t travel.

For example, the 1918 flu pandemic occurred in a world before commercial aviation, interstate highways and advanced medicine. The outbreak killed 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans.

“Despite the fact that there wasn’t nearly as much travel,” Gluckman said, “the disease spread rapidly all over the world.”

Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson and David Jackson, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus travel restrictions: For US citizens, limits unlikely

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