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Wall to Block COVID-19 Had Holes       07/05 09:42

   A February ban on travelers from mainland China aimed at slowing the advance 
of the corona virus pandemic was called a "strong wall" by President Donald 
Trump. But research shows that wall may have been more of a sieve. 


   (AP) -- President Donald Trump has repeatedly credited his February ban on 
travelers from mainland China as his signature move against the advance of the 
coronavirus pandemic -- a "strong wall" that allowed only U.S. citizens inside, 
he boasted in May.

   But Trump's wall was more like a sieve.

   Exempted were thousands of residents of the Chinese territories of Hong Kong 
and Macau. Efforts to track U.S. residents returning from mainland China were 
riddled with errors and broken communications.

   An analysis of Commerce Department travel entry records and private aviation 
data obtained by The Associated Press shows that nearly 8,000 Chinese nationals 
and foreign residents of Hong Kong and Macao entered the U.S. on more than 600 
commercial and private flights in the first three months after the ban was 
imposed.

   When U.S. residents flying from mainland China arrived at U.S. airports, the 
system meant to flag and monitor them for the development of symptoms lost 
track of at least 1,600 people in just the first few days the ban went into 
effect, according to internal state government emails obtained by the AP.

   Trump's continuing travel restrictions on China, which he followed with a 
ban on travel from European nations in March and a new prohibition on entry 
from virus-plagued Brazil last month, remain the administration's first line of 
defense against foreign sources of the pandemic.

   "We did a great job on CoronaVirus, including the very early ban on China," 
Trump tweeted last week. "We saved millions of U.S. lives!"

   Trump on Jan. 31 announced the original travel ban on any non-U.S. residents 
who had recently been in mainland China. His action came weeks after Chinese 
officials acknowledged a new highly contagious and deadly virus was spreading 
through the city of Wuhan.

   Travelers from Hong Kong and Macau were exempted from that ban, and they did 
not face the same enhanced screening and quarantine procedures required of 
Americans and others returning from Wuhan and China's mainland.

   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 U.S. in February. Those totals dropped 
to 2,100 in March and just 150 in April, Commerce Department travel entry 
records show.

   There is no clear evidence that the small but steady flow of people from 
Hong Kong and Macau introduced COVID-19 cases inside the U.S. in January or in 
the four months since, but the exemptions "certainly undercut the purpose of 
the ban," said Dr. Ronald Waldman, a professor of Global Health at George 
Washington University.

   Waldman, who dealt with international quarantines as a Centers for Disease 
Control and Prevention official during a cholera outbreak in Africa in the 
1990s, said travel bans can temporarily hobble the pace of a surging virus. 
Such moves "slow down the transmission and buy you time, but they have to be 
structured properly and followed with other strong measures," he said.

   Hong Kong had struggled to quell influenza outbreaks earlier in the 2000s, 
but has won praise for strict health precautions in recent months that 
minimized its virus caseload in the wake of Wuhan's flare-up. But when it 
exempted Hong Kong from the China travel ban, Trump administration officials 
had no way of knowing whether Hong Kong's anti-virus regimen would succeed or 
if any infected travelers entered the U.S. from the Chinese territory.

   None of the agencies involved in crafting and announcing the China ban -- 
the National Security Council, the State Department, the CDC and the Department 
of Health and Human Services -- would comment publicly to the AP about why Hong 
Kong and Macau were exempted. In a brief statement, the State Department said 
it would not "comment on internal policy decisions," and deferred to the White 
House.

   The White House did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation.

   Officials familiar with the internal discussions that took place in late 
January before the China ban was announced cited concerns that a ban that was 
too broad might jeopardize trade talks and harm the travel industry. One 
official said the intent was to craft a ban that was "surgical" and would limit 
disruption.

   A second administration official noted that the decision to impose a travel 
ban came after hundreds of thousands of travelers had entered the U.S. from 
China in January. That same month, more than 12,700 people entered the U.S. 
from the two Chinese territories, Commerce records show.

   The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke 
on condition of anonymity.

   Hong Kong and Macau have long been given preferential economic and trade 
treatment from the U.S. because of their financial importance and their status 
as independent enclaves within China's orbit.

   A 2019 State Department report on Hong Kong said more than 1,300 U.S. firms 
operated there, including nearly every major U.S. financial company, "with 
hundreds of billions of dollars in assets under management." Macau is a 
world-renowned island of casinos, some owned by U.S.-based companies.

   Former Ambassador Richard Boucher, who was Hong Kong consul general in the 
1990s, said that under the Hong Kong Policy Act passed by Congress in 1992, "we 
are obligated to treat Hong Kong as a special jurisdiction as long as it 
functions independently."

   When Trump's China travel restrictions went into effect on Feb. 2, at least 
15 cases of the new coronavirus had already been detected in Hong Kong, along 
with one death, and seven more cases had been found in Macau. All the initial 
Macau cases were later traced to the outbreak in Wuhan.

   As of this week, the former British colony had registered 1,248 cases and 
seven deaths and Macau had 46 cases. Even with those low totals, Hong Kong has 
struggled with at least three spikes of COVID-19 cases: one in late February. 
another in mid-March, and a surge of 130 cases over the past two weeks.

   Hong Kong's virus surges led both the CDC and the State Department to issue 
a series of warnings to Americans considering flights to Hong Kong -- actions 
that would appear to be at odds with the continuing travel ban exemptions 
allowing travelers from Hong Kong and Macau to enter the country.

   "Once we see that there is significant human to human transmission so it's 
not just, hey, there is something going on there we go to what is called a 
level one. And right now that's Hong Kong," the CDC's director, Dr. Robert 
Redfield, testified during a House hearing on Feb. 27.

   The CDC's warnings on Hong Kong and Macau have since been raised to the 
agency's highest alert level, urging Americans to "avoid all nonessential 
travel." Separately, a less-heightened warning from the State Department urges 
Hong Kong travelers to "exercise increased caution."

   Since that time, there has been a turnabout. Hong Kong has banned U.S. 
citizens and other international travelers from arriving by air, as more than 
2.7 million Americans have tested positive and more than 128,000 have died of 
COVID-19.

   If the flow of Americans going to Hong Kong and Macau was stifled, the 
stream of Americans and others coming back to the U.S. from mainland China was 
unabated. And the program to screen them had real problems.

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

   The system was flawed to begin with. States could opt out of receiving 
passenger information from the CDC, and six did so: Georgia, New Jersey, 
Oregon, North Carolina, Arizona and Illinois. For the opt-out states, CDC 
simply disabled notifications. Any passengers from mainland China coming to 
their state would do so without being flagged or tracked.

   At the time, a robust testing and contact tracing effort might have been 
able to curb the spread of any virus arriving with travelers from mainland 
China, according to a CDC postmortem of mistakes that led to the virus' early 
spread in the U.S.

   But the effort immediately ran into problems.

   "Hearing word of people already leaking through screening system and ending 
up in states without the funneling airports," a CDC employee wrote to several 
local health officials on Feb. 6, soon after the program began, according to an 
email obtained by the AP through a public records request. "Knew it would not 
be perfect but it has begun."

   "One flight did not receive any screening," said another email between New 
Hampshire officials stated on Feb. 7.

   The CDC said it had no record of any complete flights not being screened. 
But it said if the Department of Homeland Security failed to send the CDC that 
information, it would not know whether whole flights were missed.

   New Hampshire state officials soon began getting calls from people who had 
recently returned, but that they hadn't been notified about, according to a 
Feb. 10 email.

   New Hampshire officials said the individuals who called were proactively 
reaching out to self-report their travel based on their understanding that 
local health departments would monitor them. They noted "it took a period of 
time" to establish the process of passing along traveler information to states.

   CDC spokesman Scott Pauley said the agency didn't get enough information 
from customs officials with Homeland Security, who were responsible for 
gathering passenger data at airports.

   "The records were poor quality, and the data wasn't complete enough for 
anyone to be able to do anything with," Pauley told the AP.

   The CDC said some 26,000 travelers from China were screened in all of 
February. The agency acknowledged that data problems contributed to thousands 
of notifications not being sent to state health departments. Because of these 
problems, the CDC has since issued a rule requiring airlines to report 
passenger data directly to the agency during public health crises.

   Despite the breakdown in notifying states, the CDC pointed out that at the 
time, travel screening was just one of a number of infection control measures 
in effect. There was a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travelers from Wuhan 
city, and for those with known exposure to the virus.

   But even when notifications were sent to states, the information wasn't 
reliable, frustrating local officials worried about getting in touch with them 
quickly enough to prevent any spread.

   "There was lots and lots of bad information," said Fran Phillips, Maryland's 
deputy secretary for public health services.

   The data was plagued by bad telephone numbers, erroneous itineraries, and 
people claiming they had never even been to China. Because the CDC wasn't able 
to verify the information, the agency told local officials that they were 
trusting that people were telling the truth, according to internal notes shared 
among California state health officials.

   In New Mexico, officials were left scrambling after a woman who had just 
returned from China appeared on the television news. The state got no warning 
from the CDC and couldn't reach her. They were left to judge her condition 
based on the TV segment.

   "Fortunately, she appears healthy, without cough," wrote the state's chief 
of epidemiology to others in the health department in an email.

   Public health experts and state officials have criticized the administration 
for failing to quickly follow up the travel restrictions with social 
distancing, ample testing and other anti-viral measures. Researchers have shown 
that virus-borne travelers flying in from European nations also stoked 
infections in New York and other cities during February and March before the 
administration suspended tra

 
 
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