Should the US lift its covid entry test rule? 5 health experts intervene.

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One of the biggest logistical headaches for international travelers — the requirement to test negative for coronavirus within a day of flying into the United States — appears to persist.

“There are no plans to change international travel requirements at this time,” outgoing White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said during a briefing last week. The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had no update when contacted by The Washington Post on Monday.

But travelers and industry groups are eager to shake up the rule as other countries drop theirs, or at least find out how long it will be enforced. During a recent Washington Post live chat on travel, more than 20 questions were submitted about the testing requirement. The rule applies to all air travelers entering the United States, including citizens, residents and those who are vaccinated.

On Friday, travel and business groups sent a letter to the new White House coronavirus czar, Ashish Jha, calling on the government, as they have done for months, to drop the pre-departure testing rule for international flights to the country.

“Pre-departure testing is no longer an effective measure to protect the United States from COVID-19,” says the letter from the US Travel Association, Airlines for America, American Hotel and Lodging Association and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. United States. “While offering few health benefits, this requirement discourages travel by imposing additional cost and fear of being stranded abroad.”

The groups have also called for the federal mask mandate for transportation to be dropped; the authorities have extended it until at least April 18. Meanwhile, data tracked by The Washington Post shows cases in the United States are rising again after falling sharply following the omicron surge.

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Visitors who are not US citizens or immigrants must be fully immunized to enter the country. Air travelers who have tested positive for the coronavirus within the last 90 days do not need to provide a negative test if they have documentation of recovery from the virus.

Here’s what five health experts are saying if the testing rule is still needed.

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‘I don’t know when’ test rule could be relaxed

Lin Chen, director of the Mount Auburn Travel Medicine Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, acknowledged in an email that testing requirements complicate travel and can be confusing when they differ from country to country. other.

But, she said, it is “reassuring” for international travelers to know that others on the flight have tested negative, reducing the risk of exposure for their fellow travelers.

“Catching those who test positive/postponing travel could reduce the risk of reintroducing Covid to low incidence areas (or introducing a new variant),” she wrote.

Chen, outgoing president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, provided a checklist of factors she says would indicate it’s time to abandon the testing rule.

“If every traveler can be diligent in self-testing/self-monitoring, and Covid rates are steadily declining around the world, and no new variants emerge to threaten stability, then this would be great to relax the testing requirement to come to the US,” she wrote. “I don’t know when – the CDC may have certain parameters.”

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“Now is the time to continue these measures”

As CEO of testing company eMed, Patrice Harris is confident that testing along with mitigation measures such as vaccinations and masks will allow people to continue to gather and travel. She said she has emphasized the importance of testing since the start of the pandemic, when she was president of the American Medical Association.

While hospitalizations in the United States are low, she said, some regions are seeing the number of cases increase – and surges in Europe could signal a future increase here. Philadelphia announced it was reinstating its indoor mask mandate amid a surge in cases, and some DC-area universities have brought back mask rules.

“I will say now is not the time to relax these measures,” she said. “In fact, now is the time to pursue these measures.”

She expects to reach a point where testing for international travel to the United States will no longer be necessary, but she cannot say when that will be.

She said she believed there would be several data points to consider when lifting the rule, including case counts, hospitalizations, capacity, global vaccination rates and equitable access. to treatment.

“We’re looking at a brand new virus, and this virus, as I’ve said many times, gets an A-plus for doing what viruses are supposed to do,” she said.

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“I think at some point it will make sense to remove it”

Crystal Watson, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the testing rule “doesn’t cover all of our bases at this time.” While it’s wise to test before boarding a plane, it’s not mandatory for domestic flights. Other countries have dropped their testing requirements and, she said, she doesn’t think travel from other parts of the world poses a significantly higher risk than travel within the country.

“I think at some point it will make sense to remove it,” Watson said.

She said there was no clear metric for when to lift something like the test rule. But given the transmission of the BA.2 omicron variant in many parts of the world, she said, “this is probably not the time to relax this restriction.”

“For me personally, I’m still in favor of masking and testing where we can try to limit our exposure and transmission because we’re still in an active pandemic,” she said.

Nearly 10,000 people tested negative before flying. Only one was positive after landing, according to one study.

“Maybe it’s time to re-examine it”

Infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco’s Division of Infectious Disease Health, said testing is just one of many strategies to make an environment safe. And he said it’s “probably the easiest fruit” to drop if other things like vaccination requirements and mask mandates are kept in place.

Chin-Hong said he was unsure if the requirement would have the desired effect, especially as millions of untested people are flying within the country, including on long-distance flights to places like Hawaii or Puerto Rico. And, he said, an industry around fraudulent test results has sprung up.

“Perhaps the biggest repercussion of the potential end of this rule in the United States is to cut the umbilical cord of many people who have made money by doing false tests to enter the country,” said he declared.

Chin-Hong said he thought the rules should be updated for the time: ‘Maybe it’s time to revisit them,’ he said of the testing requirement .

Outside of testing, vaccinations and masking, “I think testing to make the environment safe if you have the other things in place is probably not the most important thing,” he said.

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“We have loads of covid here”

William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, said he hadn’t heard of a “good public health reason to pursue this testing program.”

“We have loads of covid here; it’s already here, it’s in every community in the United States, what are we trying to prevent? ” he said. “I’m open to justification, I just haven’t heard of it. I continue to be a bit surprised that it’s still up considering everything that’s going on. »

Schaffner said international air travelers would feel more comfortable knowing everyone was tested on a flight to the United States. But he wondered if a test should be required for a plane when it is not mandatory to go to religious services indoors, attend a concert or eat in a restaurant.

“Putting that requirement in place, I think, is a bit like saying to someone, ‘Don’t pour that bucket of water in your pool,'” he said.

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