The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and United Airlines have teamed up to create the first real contact-tracing initiative in the United States. Yup, nine months into a worldwide pandemic, and it looks like we will finally have some ability to traceback and identify positive cases—at least those related to air travel.
Until now, studies on the safety of air travel have been performed and published (but not peer-reviewed), but there has been no concrete way to definitively traceback infections that may or may not have occurred on U.S. domestic or international flights.
Exact points of transmission for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have often been difficult to pinpoint throughout the pandemic due to the virus’ long 14-day incubation period and the fact that between 40-50 percent of cases are people who are contagious show no symptoms.
"Contact tracing is a fundamental component of the nation's public health response strategy for controlling the spread of communicable diseases of public health concern," said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield in a statement. "Collection of contact information from air travelers will greatly improve the timeliness and completeness of information for COVID-19 public health follow-up and contact tracing."
Before travelers get their privacy rights panties in a bunch, know that participating in the contact tracing program will be optional. Again, highly recommended but ultimately optional. Upon checking in for all domestic and international United flights, travelers will have the option to provide contact information—via the app, online, or at the airport—such as a phone number, email address, and address where they can be reached after reaching their destination.
The airline is wasting no time. Starting this week, international passengers arriving into the United States on any United flight can expect to see the new contact tracing options pop up. Next-stage rollouts include contact information collection for all outbound domestic and international flights in the coming weeks.
This isn’t the first time during the pandemic that United has stepped up to the plate to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Along with being the first U.S. carrier to offer optional pre-flight COVID-19 testing, the airline was also the first to implement same-day rapid testing for flights from San Francisco to Hawaii as a way for those with negative results to bypass Hawaii’s mandatory quarantine. Next, in a world’s-first pilot testing program, United provided free rapid tests for all passengers over the age of two-years-old on flights between Newark Liberty and London Heathrow. Most recently, the airline began offering passengers on select flights out of Houston to Latin America and the Caribbean mail-in COVID-19 test options.
“Initiatives like testing and contact tracing will play a significant role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is widely available,” said United’s chief customer officer, Toby Enqvist. “United continues to take a leadership role in both areas, and is proud to support the CDC by doing our part to help them safeguard public health and safety.”
However, maybe now’s a good time to mention that just days ago, reports surfaced that United has been telling some members of its flight crews to skip quarantine and continue working the friendly skies—even if someone they’ve worked with recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Guess it’s a good thing they’ve got contact tracing now, right?