California Democratic Senator, Diane Feinstein introduces a senate bill requiring proof of vaccination or negative test result for domestic travel but fails to support it with data.
The US Air Travel Public Safety Act
The bill proposed by octogenarian Senator, Diane Feinstein of California states that travelers must provide proof of full vaccination, the recent recovery of COVID-19, or a negative test result prior to flying for all domestic flights.
I, like many other travel writers and bloggers, generally oppose this requirement for a few reasons such as the damage to the travel industry already struggling to recover, the limited mobility of US citizens, and the slippery slope it creates but mostly because air travel is safe despite COVID.
This bill has a host of other issues that make it a non-starter.
Lack of Factual Basis
The bill outlines three groups the measure is intended to protect: airline employees, children, and the vulnerable:
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES[…]
Mrs. FEINSTEIN introduced the following bill; which was read twice and referred to the Committee on[…]
reduce passenger, crewmember, and airport personnel risk of exposure to COVID–19, decrease the risk of transmission of COVID–19 on board aircraft and to United States destination communities through air travel, and protect children and other vulnerable individuals by preventing further spread of COVID–19 in the United States.
However, many of the nation’s carriers already have a nearly completely vaccinated workforce. United is over 96%, Delta is over 80% for example. No one disputes the need to protect the vulnerable (though the CDC maintains against its unnecessary travel recommendation especially for the vulnerable.) But then the good senator puts “children” into the mix.
While more kids have recently tested positive for COVID-19, mortality is rare and co-morbidity data has not been released. The American Association of Pediatrics reports the following children mortality rates for COVID-19:
- Among states reporting, children were 0.00%-0.27% of all COVID-19 deaths, and 7 states reported zero child deaths
- In states reporting, 0.00%-0.03% of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death
The basis of this legislation is to protect (vaccinated or frequently tested) airline employees, children who account for 0 to 0.27% of COVID deaths, and the vulnerable. The basis should simply be to protect the vulnerable but the inclusion of the employee segment is to demonstrate workers that do not have a choice in whether to be exposed or not, and of course to pull on the heartstrings with the inclusion of children though they represent little to no risk at all.
Children account for a relatively small amount of air travelers anyway, which further demonstrates the lack of necessity in including them as a basis for the bill.
While the bill states that this aligns with current statutes for international arrivals, it does not. US persons returning to the United States must provide a negative test regardless of vaccination status.
- (1) provide the covered air carrier with documentation demonstrating that the passenger is fully vaccinated (as defined by the Secretary or any successor guidance) against the COVID–19 (SARS–16 CoV–2) novel coronavirus;
This bill would remove the testing requirement that the rest of the federal government has kept in place. While vaccinated passengers would prefer not to have to test, due to breakthrough cases, the US international standard is effective in determining who has COVID; this bill doesn’t.
Natural Immunity Excluded
The term “fully vaccinated” excludes those that have natural immunity (recovered from COVID-19) but are outside of the first 90 days since infection. It also excludes those that have natural immunity and have one-shot of a two-shot vaccine, considered the “gold standard” in several Israeli papers. The scientific community has been clear with regards to two things about natural immunity:
- We do not know how long antibodies last naturally; and
- Natural immunity is considered stronger than that derived from the vaccine.
What we know about vaccination-derived antibodies are:
- We do not know how long antibodies last from the vaccine; and
- Vaccine immunity is considered weaker than that derived from natural antibodies.
Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked by Dr. Sanjay Gupta if there is a case for vaccinating those that still possess the antibodies from contracting COVID. Here’s that exchange:
One revision to Senator Feinstein’s bill that would be scientifically based would be to test for antibodies (and provide those results) in order to board an aircraft. If one has antibodies regardless of the source (vaccine or natural) then they would be as low risk as anyone else on the aircraft that had recovered from the virus in the last 90 days or was fully vaccinated.
Why is that not the standard? Antibody tests are cheap, widely available, less invasive than a COVID test, and apply to the largest contingent of US people.
The bill does not define “fully vaccinated” (it punts to “successor guidance”) but that is to presume it’s referring to completing both shots of a two-shot vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson. However, the international mandate outlines which vaccines are acceptable, this bill does not. While it’s unlikely a traveler would have a vaccine outside of the approved methods, the international version of this law is clear on what’s approved and what isn’t.
It also isn’t clear if “fully vaccinated” will require a booster for those who heretofore were considered fully vaccinated but fall into booster-recommended segments. If a two-shot vaccinated 65-year old wants to board an aircraft under this bill, must she also prove a third shot as that has now been recommended by the CDC (though for some categories Dr. Walensky did so against the advice of her own panel.)
The bill outlines what test result language is considered to be valid but is less clear about any excluded methods (the international standard is clear.) While I’m not asking for China’s method to be used, this bill is vague.
Evidence of Air Travel Contributing to the Spread of COVID-19
The biggest concern for this bill is not just the shoddy wording, mistargeting, nor vague areas but rather the lack of evidence that this is needed at all.
“We know that air travel during the 2020 holiday season contributed to last winter’s devastating COVID-19 surge. We simply cannot allow that to happen again,” Feinstein said.
Assuming that’s scientifically founded, the basis on last year’s holiday travel would be, frankly, stupid for the following reason: the vaccine wasn’t available. The first shots were given on December 14th, 2020 to extremely limited groups. The Senator is basing the need for this legislation on a time where no Americans were vaccinated and the only ones that held the antibodies were naturally immunized.
Further, despite millions of travelers passing through TSA every day, we have yet to link a superspreader event to a flight. There has been one case in Hong Kong and one in Ireland for which I am aware (please feel free to cite others in the comments) that has been a confirmed significant transmission point.
The tests from the US government in conjunction with United Airlines found that there is such a small chance that one would contract the virus onboard an aircraft that it was virtually impossible and that you’re far more likely to become a billionaire in the US or be struck by lightning than you are to contract aboard a plane due to its HEPA filtration systems, and mandated masks.
Unduly Harms Airlines
This bill does not have the same requirement for trains, nor buses, ships, nor cars. If airlines felt as though they were being targeted, they are. On the surface, this might make sense as airlines move more passengers than trains, ships, or buses (though not cars) however, none of those modes of transportation use the advanced air filtration that airplanes do.
Even with the passing of this bill, no vaccination paperwork, negative test results, nor recent recovery evidence is required for other modes of transportation. Carriers flying long-haul trans-continental trips won’t see much competition from Amtrak nor Greyhound, but San Francisco to Los Angeles, Houston to Dallas, Boston to Washington DC all would. That’s not fair to the airlines.
This concept has been floated in the media for some time as a never-ending temperature-taking on the public’s reaction to such a mandate. We have all heard and repeated “follow the science”, but from the motivation of its inception (last holiday travel period was bad) to its flawed beneficiaries (already vaccinated and highly tested employees, non-factor children) to its unintentionally ambiguous standard – yet this bill does anything but follows the science.
What do you think? Is this bill welcomed by you? Does it make sense according to the current factual and scieentific information available? Is this an overreach?