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White House reportedly moves to eliminate COVID-19 security theater at airports

International travelers arriving in the United States will reportedly no longer go through enhanced health screenings at the airport. The planned change in policy, first reported by Yahoo News, is expected to go into effect on September 14th.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been screening travelers coming into the US from certain countries since January when it started flagging anyone coming from or through Wuhan, China. The screening involves a temperature check and symptom check. Travelers are also expected to provide information that could be used for contact tracing in the event they were exposed to someone with COVID-19.

The White House ordered the change in practice, according to Yahoo News. US Customs and Border Protection told The Verge to contact the Department of Homeland Security about the policy, which referred The Verge to the CDC.

Airport screenings are designed to catch infected people traveling into the country so that they don’t continue to spread COVID-19. They don’t usually end up catching that many sick people, though. Temperature checks alone aren’t going to catch people who caught the virus but aren’t showing symptoms yet or anyone who is asymptomatic. Fever is a common symptom of COVID-19, but some very sick people never develop one. It’s also easily masked by medication. Symptom screenings rely on people telling the truth and, again, won’t flag anyone who is pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.

In February, US officials screened over 30,000 people in airports and did not find anyone infected with the virus. One analysis found that airport screening would miss almost half of infected travelers. Fewer than 15 passengers with COVID-19 were identified through airport screenings, a TSA official told CNN.

Catching people in airports is also most likely to be beneficial before transmission starts in earnest, when public health officials are still trying to contain any spread of a virus. The US has the biggest COVID-19 outbreaks of any country in the world. An international traveler is probably more at risk of catching the virus in the country than of bringing it in.

The reported moves to get rid of the airport checks line up with what the White House seems to think about the pandemic. Airport health screenings are, in many ways, security theater. Governments use them to show the public that they’re doing something. Eliminating them makes it look like things are back to normal.

It’s in line with with “out of sight, out of mind” approach the Trump administration seems to be taking with the COVID-19 outbreaks across the country. Last month, officials pressured the CDC to change its testing recommendations and discourage people without symptoms from getting COVID-19 tests, which runs counter to public health recommendations. President Trump has repeatedly and falsely said that fewer tests would lower the caseload.

For months, Trump has publicly downplayed the significance of the virus that has killed around 190,000 people in the United States at the time of writing. Since February, behind closed doors, he seemed clear on the danger of the virus, according to newly released interviews with journalist Bob Woodward. Trump told Woodward in March that he intentionally minimized the risk. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, days after declaring a national emergency. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

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