Since New Year’s Eve, the day Chinese officials disclosed the outbreak of a mysterious pneumonialike illness to international health officials, at least 430,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China. This number includes nearly 40,000 in the two months after Trump imposed restrictions on such travel, according to an analysis of data collected in both countries.
According to The NY Times, the majority of the travelers who were of multiple nationalities, arrived in January, at airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Newark, and Detroit. Thousands of them flew in directly from Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, as just American public health officials were only beginning to assess the coming threat to the United States.
And even with what we now know, some flights continued this past week, as the data showed, with passengers traveling from Beijing to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, under government rules that allow Americans and some others to return despite the clampdown that took effect on Feb. 2.
The information shows that a total of 279 flights from China have arrived in the United States since then, and screening procedures have been uneven.
Meanwhile, Trump has consistently suggested that his travel measures impeded the virus’s spread into the country. “I do think we were very early, but I also think that we were very smart because we stopped China,” he said at a briefing on Tuesday, adding, “That was probably the biggest decision we made so far.”
Last month he reminded reporters that “We’re the ones that kept China out of here.” But the NYT’s analysis of the flight and other data shows the travel measures, however effective, may have come too late to have “kept China out,” particularly in light of recent statements from health officials that as many as 25 percent of people infected with the virus may never show symptoms anyway.
Many infectious-disease experts now suspect that the virus had been spreading completely undetected for many weeks after the first American case was confirmed on January 20th (in Washington state) and that it had continued to be introduced. In fact, no one knows for sure when the virus first arrived in the United States.
The NY Times claims that back in mid-January, while China was downplaying the severity of the outbreak there, travelers from China were screened for potential exposure to the virus. Then when health screening began in mid-January, it was only for a number of travelers who had been in Wuhan specifically and only at the airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. By that time alone, about 4,000 people had already entered the United States directly from Wuhan, and those measures were expanded to all passengers from China two weeks later, according to VariFlight, an aviation data company based in China.
Back in January, before the broad screening measures were in place, there were over 1,300 direct passenger flights from China to the United States, according to VariFlight and two American firms, MyRadar and FlightAware.
The data from the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration shows that about 381,000 travelers flew directly from China to the United States that month, about a quarter of whom were American.
Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, described Trump’s travel restrictions as a “bold decisive action which medical professionals say will prove to have saved countless lives.” Gidley said in a statement on Friday that the policy took effect, at a time when the global health community did not yet “know the level of transmission or asymptomatic spread.”
Officials in Trump’s administration also claimed that they received significant pushback about imposing the restrictions even when they did. Pointing out that, at the time, the World Health Organization hadn’t suggested any restrictions, Chinese officials rebuffed them and some scientists questioned whether curtailing travel would do any real good.