CDC Faulted For Inability to Track COVID-19 on Planes

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses outdated tools to track and analyze how Covid-19 spreads on planes, hindering the agency’s ability to stop outbreaks, a government watchdog agency said.

Public health is always at risk from air travel. A sick person could board a plane and then land hours later in another country, spreading the disease quickly over long distances. Because of that, the CDC’s contact-tracing capabilities have long been seen as critical to the agency’s disease surveillance and response.

But in a report released Monday, the Government Accountability Office said the agency’s technological tools were old, slow and prone to problems. The “CDC is not positioned to efficiently analyze and disseminate data to inform public health policies and respond to disease threats,” the GAO said.

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As the CDC is about to release the results of its internal review regarding the response to the COVID-19 outbreak that caused more than 1 million deaths in America, the report was released. Bloomberg reported May that officials at the CDC, as well from other agencies within the government have expressed long-standing dissatisfaction with the organization’s collection and management of data.

The GAO stated that many of the data entry tasks involved in tracking air traveller’s movements are performed manually. It can take as much as two weeks for the CDC (CDC) to obtain additional information needed to fix errors or fill gaps left by airlines. By that point, the information is practically obsolete, the GAO said, and the “delay can contribute to broader community spread of a disease, as potentially exposed passengers may become difficult to locate and notify, or they may become symptomatic or infectious during this time.”

An “outdated data management system” is to blame for the agency’s inability to quickly and accurately identify passengers exposed to an infected person on a flight, according to the GAO.

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GAO recommended to the CDC that it redesign or create a system that allows for more efficient surveillance.

The study was conducted by congressional auditors who reviewed all federal documents, regulations and orders. Interviews were also conducted with officials from Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Aviation Administration and CDC.

The CDC said in a statement that the agency appreciated the GAO’s report and that it, too, has cited challenges around acquiring data necessary to inform public health policy.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is working with the Biden administration and Congress to improve the agency’s data capabilities, the agency said.

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