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CDC Says Temperature And Symptom Screening Ineffective At Airports

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A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that US airport measures to screen arriving travelers for COVID-19, such as symptom and temperature-checking, are ineffective.

temperature screening sign at airport

The study, which was guided by traveler data at designated US airports between January 17 to September 13, found that a total of 9 COVID positive cases were discovered through screening measures, out of more than 766,000 screened travelers. 

The total number of cases detected would indicate one case being identified for every 85,000 travelers screened.

The data further reported that out of the 766,000 screened travelers, only 35 travelers were determined necessary to be tested, and 300 met the requirement to undergo a public health assessment.

travelers arriving at LAX airport

A shortage of testing kits during the start of the pandemic could be recognised as to why such few tests were carried out, though the CDC did not address it in the study.

How the Program Worked

The data for the study was obtained from an enhanced screening program which the CDC implemented in January, in which they screened arriving travelers at airports by asking them if they felt any symptoms and checking their temperature. 

Due to such a low detection rate, the program was eventually scrapped by the CDC in September.

The program was initially designed to screen incoming travelers from Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the course of the program, screening extended to travelers from 31 countries across 15 US airports.

The travelers arriving from one of the participating countries would be screened by US Customs and Border Protection officers. The travelers would be given a temperature-check, and a questionnaire regarding symptoms, virus exposure and contact information.

Any traveler that exhibited a high temperature, reported symptoms or revealed exposure would qualify for additional assessment.

travelers and staff at airport delta

The CDC stated that the program was very resource-intensive.

Symptoms Not a Good Indicator

COVID-19 is a novel virus, and hence was not fully understood by the medical community right away. Unlike other viruses, a carrier of COVID-19 could be asymptomatic and contagious.

The asymptomatic characteristic of the illness is a major factor as to why the CDC determined the program to be ineffective, as the CDC stated: 

“Symptom-based screening programs are ineffective because of the nonspecific clinical presentation of COVID-19 and asymptomatic cases”. 

Travelers in masks waiting at US Airport

In addition, the CDC noted that the screening measures in the program were flawed, as they required cooperation and honesty from travelers, without a verification process.

Communication New Strategy

Upon cancellation of the screening program, the CDC shifted towards promoting guidelines and recommending preventative measures in order to combat the transmission of the virus. 

The CDC addressed the need for transition in the study, stating: 

“Reducing COVID-19 importation has transitioned to enhancing communication with travelers to promote recommended preventive measures, strengthening response capacity at ports of entry, and encouraging pre-departure and post arrival testing”. 

security at airport with mask

The effectiveness of CDC’s new strategy remains to be seen, however, many travelers chose to ignore the CDC’s recent warning to avoid travel during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Testing Becoming More Prevalent

While the CDC is encouraging testing for COVID-19, many US states are electing to offer travelers the ability to remove quarantine requirements by taking a COVID test.

Additionally, many U.S airlines are offering travelers with pre-flight tests prior to their departures. COVID testing is beginning to become available at airports as well.  

covid19 testing sign by airport terminal

The CDC recommends pre-departure testing, within 72 hours prior to travel, to reduce the risk of COVID transmission and adding assurance to flight travel, which is already reported to be relatively safe.

The CDC study further recommends post-arrival testing, stating:

“Post arrival testing could allow for shortening of post travel self-quarantine periods that protect against travel-associated imported (translocated) infections”.

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Disclaimer: Current travel rules and restrictions can change without notice. The decision to travel is ultimately your responsibility. Contact your consulate and/or local authorities to confirm your nationality’s entry and/or any changes to travel requirements before traveling.  Travel Off Path does not endorse traveling against government advisories


Thursday 3rd of December 2020

very nice article

Aaisha Ali

Thursday 3rd of December 2020

Thank you Harrison, I'm glad you enjoyed it.


Wednesday 2nd of December 2020

Let me guess - the only solution to this is to make vaccination mandatory for all travelers. Otherwise, how will we ever survive this virus with a 99.97% survival rate? Giving up your freedom for (imaginary) safety - what could possibly go wrong.


Saturday 5th of December 2020

Very good point.