Could US Airports Become the New Epicenters of the Pandemic? | TravelResearchOnline

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Could US Airports Become the New Epicenters of the Pandemic?

Next week, Los Angeles and San Francisco will become the poster children for the vaccine movement. After leading most of the United States in new coronavirus cases at the end of 2020, in four months, both cities are down to the under two-percent threshold that places them in California’s lowest-risk Yellow Tier. The risk for being infected with COVID-19 in these cities is becoming increasingly unlikely. Their daily infectivity rates for the virus are now less than 2 cases per 100,000 for those tested.

 

 

These cities have achieved this mainly through vaccinating everyone willing. In most localities of the entire United States, residents are—according to the federal government—living no more than five miles from a place where people can get vaccinated. Most localities also have strict limits on crowding. In California, even in Yellow Tier cities, indoor dining is limited to 50% capacities. Geographic limitations also restrict covid-spread. In Disneyland, all the park’s visitors must have addresses in California.

When it comes to testing for Covid-19, most public schools have scheduled periodic tests. When the University of California and State College campuses open this fall, all students and staff will have to be vaccinated. It’s this combination of vaccinations, tests, social distancing, and masking that have completely turned around the risks of living in California and many other states.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case when it comes to airports. The domestic terminals disembark passengers from areas of the United States that have much higher infectivity rates and land them in Los Angeles and San Francisco, without significant precautions such as compulsory vaccinations and testing. The only meaningful protection is masking. Everyone understands that other measures such as temperature checks and questionnaires are no help against unvaxed, asymptomatic travelers who are already infected. Yet, they’re still mandated in the hope of giving travelers a feeling of being protected.

It’s reasonable to assume that the domestic terminals of airports may serve as the epicenters from which new variants of Covid-19 emerge. You can’t imagine a more effective way of spreading viruses than bringing unvaccinated people from many parts of the US together in confined spaces such as airports and aircraft.

At the airports, the masks provide only minimal protection for incoming or departing unvaxed passengers—especially when they’re crowded together on lines and eat together unmasked in the airport seats. As terminals become more crowded due to people feeling safer towards air travel, we’re virtually begging for local outbreaks among unvaccinated people to be unleashed.

The outbreaks probably won’t be as bad as those that have just occurred in India. We now have more than 100 million fully vaccinated people in the US. Nevertheless, the outcomes could be devastating if they result in local businesses, airports, and domestic flying closing down again for several months.

Recognizing the threat, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has just updated its recommendations for domestic air travel:

“The CDC continues to recommend delaying [air] travel until travelers are fully vaccinated. Travelers who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine can travel safely within the United States and do not need to get tested before or after travel unless their destination requires it, nor do they need to self-quarantine. This guidance applies to travel within the United States and its territories.”

If these were regular times, the next step would be for the CDC, FAA, TSA, etc., to issue regulations restricting domestic flights and airports to only vaccinated passengers. Remember, vaccinations are free and are widely available. This is also in keeping with what the federal agencies have done with international flights on which everyone must be vaccinated. Since most international flights also include domestic legs, what excuse is there for not requiring vaccinations on these legs as well?

Remember, it’s not only the passengers on flights that must be protected. Far more important is to protect the millions of people at destinations where variants of virus strains have not taken hold. By only stressing safety on the flights, marketers are doing everyone a disservice.

Airlines and airports could follow the same rules that the CDC has just worked out with the cruise industry. Permit domestic flights when 98 percent of crew and airport staff and 95 percent of the passengers are fully vaccinated. Given the steep increases anticipated in flights this summer, these rules should take effect no later than July.

The rules could be modified so that during the summer, fliers could be permitted on planes and in airports immediately after they get their final shot. That way, fliers opting for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine could be vaxed at the airport before they reach the security portal. TSA could also give them a Rapid Test that would yield results before they entered the boarding area. That would make up for them not having to wait the obligatory two weeks for the vaccines to gain strength. These actions will prevent more asymptomatic flyers on domestic flights from spreading new variants of disease from coast-to-coast.

But it will also accomplish something else: Encouraging more people to get vaccinated. If people know that they can’t fly or cruise before they’re vaccinated, it can do a lot to ensure that all parts of the United States will acquire herd immunity and will be less vulnerable to outbreaks.

Virtual vaccine passports will probably arrive on the scene in the next 90 days. If flyers have smartphones, all they have to is go to the Health Passport app; and take a selfie while their phone transmits an encrypted image of their vaccine passport. That will permit a computer to send back one of two messages: APPROVED or REJECTED. If fliers are approved, a gate pass that includes a name, date, and approval number will be issued. Rejected fliers would get a message on the gate pass telling them what they must do to appeal or remedy the decision. No one standing in line with them will know if they’ve been refused.

Also, look for vaccinations for children to move ahead quickly. The CDC is likely to reduce the age requirement to 12-years old this week (for the Pfizer vaccine); and to two-years old by the end of the summer.

A report released this past weekend by the CDC and Kansas State University (ISO) says it it is 57 percent more likely that airline passengers will be exposed to COVID-19 if middle seats are filled. This study is probably a “worst-case” scenario, since it didn’t account for the effects of masks or vaccines. Nevertheless, it could lead to airlines having to choose between vaccinating everyone over 12 or keeping middle seats empty this summer. Since there is no evidence that compulsory vaccinations will negatively affect revenues, which option do you think most airlines will choose?

If you have clients that are planning to fly or cruise this year, that are not yet vaxed, you might suggest that they do it immediately so they won’t have to compete with millions of children for the shots. You may want to say that while this is obviously a personal choice, travel will be much easier if they’re vaxed before the summer.

 


Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. He writes a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s read by more than 80,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is steve@sruisesandcameras.com.

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