An epidemic that begins in another country can only spread to America if we admit people at our ports of entry traveling from the source country. Yet whenever a public health crisis breaks out, such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014 and in Congo last year, a temporary travel ban seems to be the last thing on the minds of the federal agencies responsible for protecting public health, rather than the first option. Immigration and travel are regarded as too sacred to restrict. Will the coronavirus outbreak in China be different?
The death toll from the 2019-nCoV epidemic, simply referred to as the coronavirus, has now exceeded 80, as more than 2,700 cases have been confirmed in China. The potentially deadly respiratory illness originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread throughout Hubei province and even to Hong Kong. Travel likely should have been shut down two weeks ago, but the virus has now spread to the United States. There are now five confirmed cases – two in California, one in Seattle, one in Chicago, and one in Maricopa County, Arizona. All five patients had traveled recently to Wuhan.
Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, announced over the weekend, “We expect to find more cases of novel coronavirus in the United States.”
It’s particularly alarming given that the symptoms and source of this virus are like those of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which also originated in south China in 2002. During the SARS epidemic, which lasted into 2003, 774 died out of a total of 8,098 known cases worldwide.
One would expect that the first course of action of the government would be to prevent Chinese from traveling here or Americans from traveling to China and returning, or at least to impose a travel ban on parts of China. That is the first step to ensuring that the disease doesn’t spread like wildfire in our country. Yet, as with epidemics of the past, there doesn’t seem to be any imminent warning of suspending travel.
This is particularly jarring in the case of China. On average, we issue 1.4 million tourist visas to Chinese nationals every year, more than to nationals of any other country in the world. That’s a pace of nearly 4,000 per day traveling here, not including the Americans who travel to China and return. That is one massive pipeline through which an epidemic can spread.
Given that the epidemic is already reportedly this bad and China has a history of covering up the extent of natural disasters and viral epidemics in its homeland, shouldn’t there at least be a discussion about the parameters of a travel ban? As of now, the CDC has only issued an advisory notice not to travel to Wuhan City and urged people to take precautions while traveling to the rest of China. But where is the DHS on issuing a mandatory ban?
This lack of discussion over a travel suspension and the details of its parameters appears to be concerning Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo. He penned a letter to four cabinet members asking about the “when and how” of a potential suspension of travel and whether it is even under consideration. Hawley alluded to Chinese disingenuousness and failing to “be fully forthcoming with respect to the details of the spread of this virus.”
In the letter addressed to the secretaries of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, State, and Transportation, Hawley asked for a response on four pointed questions. But perhaps the most revealing is the final question: “In the event that federal officials make a preliminary determination to rule out restrictions on air travel, will you committ to inform the public that such a determination has been made in the interests of transparency and appropriate public scrutiny?”
It’s interesting how, reading between the lines, Hawley seems to suspect some departments might already have ruled out a suspension of travel. Clearly, history has shown that the concern about suspending either immigration or travel is deemed too great by our government, even when the circumstances require it. Hawley appears to be asking these departments to offer some confidence that public safety will be prioritized over the political or even economic concerns of a travel ban.
While the CDC has deployed officials to major airports to work with customs officers on screenings, the question is whether the volume of travel from China is simply too much. Statute (8 U.S.C. 1222(a)) requires the government to detain those seeking admission at ports of entry “for a sufficient time to enable the immigration officers and medical officers to subject such aliens to observation and an examination sufficient to determine whether or not they belong to inadmissible classes” carrying contagious diseases. Given the sheer numbers, it’s very hard to feel confident the effort is sufficient without a temporary suspension. (For more from the author of “Will Trump Consider Suspending Travel to China Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak?” please click HERE)