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A virus watch by land, sea and air

Planes, ships and trucks all provide vectors for an emerging pandemic. Keeping an eye on them all won't be easy.

People exit the port after being aboard of Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Anthem of the Seas on Feb.y 7, in Bayonne, New Jersey.
People exit the port after being aboard of Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Anthem of the Seas on Feb.y 7, in Bayonne, New Jersey. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

A month before the U.S. entered a full-grade panic over the coronavirus, a truck driver on a freight industry message board anonymously posted his fears.

“I am more concerned as to what comes in to the USA via freight transportation than anything else,” the driver wrote. 

That driver now seems prescient. While much of the focus has been on airline travel, a hearing involving the Department of Transportation last week made it clear that the department will have to engage multiple travel modes as the virus spreads.

When Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, she rattled off a list of responses to the virus that were overwhelmingly related to air traffic.

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Then she acknowledged every mode of transportation will ultimately feel some impact.

“We will be coordinating similar efforts with transit stakeholders as part of this whole of government plan as well,” she said, adding that cruise ships are largely under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security.

Chao said the department has focused on five tasks:

  • Helping coordinate efforts to bring thousands of American citizens and nationals safely home from China and Japan.
  • Working to maintain air and cargo traffic between the U.S. and China.
  • Helping facilitate health screenings at 11 designated airports in the United States for American passengers who have traveled in regions affected by the virus.
  • Involvement in devising health protocols to protect crews of aircraft that fly between the United States and affected areas. 
  • Helping to develop health messages about the coronavirus for airlines to share with passengers.

Congress has, to date, echoed Chao’s focus on air. 

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation and Space scheduled a hearing Wednesday to examine the role of the global air transportation industry in mitigating the spread of the virus, featuring testimony from the Department of Transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Testifying Thursday, Chao said about 15,000 returning Americans have been screened for the disease.

“These containment measures have been effective, but we must be vigilant and plan for the possibility of community-based transmission in the United States,” she said.

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Other modes of transportation have been making plans as well. 

The American Association of Port Authorities issued a statement Friday saying their members are following instructions and protocols from federal agencies. 

In the U.S., ports are closely following instructions and protocols from appropriate federal agencies to quickly respond to the coronavirus threat, according to Chris Connor, president and CEO of the association.

Port slowdown

He said in a statement that while protecting people was the top priority, the association also worried about the economic impact of the virus.

“The overall economic impact of this type of crisis can easily run into the tens of billions of dollars,” he said, adding the coronavirus outbreak could cause cargo volumes at many U.S. ports during the first quarter of 2020 to be at least 20 percent lower than the same period of 2019. 

Polly Hanson, senior director of security risk and emergency management at the American Public Transportation Association, said transit agencies have brushed off pandemic plans or contagious virus guidance dating back as far back as 2003.

She said the same agencies that prepared for swine flu, SARS, MERS and Ebola are updating and reviewing plans from those outbreaks. APTA has scheduled a webinar to help local transit agencies prepare for the outbreak and has invited the Federal Transit Administration and CDC to participate. 

“Certainly people are aware” of the outbreak, she said. “They couldn’t not be.” Similarly, the Cruise Lines International Association has adopted enhanced protocols for travelers and crew on cruise ships who traveled from or through South Korea and China, including Hong Kong and Macau. 

Among the protocols: barring boarding to all persons who have traveled from, visited or transited via airports in South Korea and China, including Hong Kong and Macau, within 14 days, as well as those who have had close contact with anyone suspected of or diagnosed with the virus.

The State Department also offers guidance, recommending any U.S. citizen returning to the United States who has been in Hubei province, China, in the previous 14 days be subject to up to 14 days of quarantine, while any U.S. citizen returning to the United States who has been in the rest of mainland China within the previous 14 days may undergo a health screening and possible self-quarantine.

President Donald Trump on Jan. 31 signed a proclamation barring entry to the United States of most foreign nationals who traveled to China within the past 14 days, effective Feb. 2. 


And the State Department tells U.S. citizens to “reconsider” travel by cruise ship to or within Asia.

DHS meanwhile, routes travelers entering the U.S. from China through 11 international airports for additional screening: John F. Kennedy in New York; Chicago O’Hare; San Francisco; Seattle-Tacoma; Daniel K. Inouye in Hawaii; Los Angeles; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta; Washington-Dulles; Newark Liberty; Dallas/Fort Worth and Detroit Metropolitan.

If a traveler who spent time in China outside the Hubei province is rerouted through one of the 11 airports and shows no symptoms following a health screening, they will be rebooked to their destination and asked to “self-quarantine” at their homes.

In a blog post reacting to the virus, Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, urged travelers not to panic, saying restrictions are focused on China.

“Travel within the United States can and should continue to thrive,” he wrote.

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