More than 750,000 people traveled from China into the United States in the months that the coronavirus pandemic was surging in China.
ABC News launched an investigation into why the coronavirus pandemic got so bad in the U.S., seemingly overnight, when they discovered robust international air travel into the country. According to the report, travelers were still able to enter the U.S. despite a travel ban put into effect by President Trump.
ABC News reports:
Travel data of passengers arriving in the United States from China during the critical period in December, January, and February, when the disease took hold in that country, shows a stunning 759,493 people entered the U.S.
“This is an astonishing number in a short period of time, illustrating how globalized our world has become. Just as people can hop continents with amazing ease, the infections they carry can too,” said Dr. Vinayak Kumar, an internal medicine resident at the Mayo Clinic and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.
According to the report, the likely destinations for these individuals include New York, Seattle, or Los Angeles. ABC News reports the travelers “could have gone anywhere in the U.S.” after their arrival.
Dr. Vinayak Kumar, a Mayo Clinic internal medicine resident and member of the ABC News Medical Unit, said easy and casual international travel contributes to the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is an astonishing number in a short period of time, illustrating how globalized our world has become. Just as people can hop continents with amazing ease, the infections they carry can too,” Kumar said.
“I think this was bound to eventually happen,” he said. “The high volume of international travel, the lack of screening, the inconsistent hand-washing and cough control … these laid down the perfect conditions for a disease to spread. Add that to a virus that is both largely asymptomatic and has a prolonged infectious period, and you have got a perfect storm of factors for a pandemic.”
Globalization has changed the game in infectious disease. We can travel anywhere in the world within 24 hours… and so can the infections we carry.
— Vinayak Kumar, MD, MBA (@VinayakKumarMD) April 2, 2020
Dr. Simone Wildes, a South Shore Health infectious disease specialist, similarly described the number of international travelers as “clearly alarming.”
“The numbers are clearly alarming,” Wildes said according to ABC News. “It shows that globalization is here, and we have to be better prepared to deal with the impact this will have on all our lives in so many ways.”
Wildes continued: “It is difficult to estimate the portion of travelers coming from China to the U.S. with COVID-19, but fair to speculate that a large number might have been infected at the time of travel.”
The 759,493 people that came from China were joined by millions of more travelers from other countries. At least 343,402 people came from Italy during this span; 418,848 people came from Spain and 1.9 million people came from Britain. ABC News reports these countries have been crippled by the coronavirus.
Dr. Todd Ellerin, the South Shore chief of Infectious Disease at South Shore Health, said even early travel bans were too late to stop the international spread.
“The United States banned travel to China 12 days after the world heard there was an outbreak of severe pneumonia in Wuhan. The problem was, it was too late,” Ellerin said per the report. “Even though there had only been 12 confirmed cases in the U.S. on the day President Trump announces the travel ban, the reality was there were many more unconfirmed cases.”
The report adds:
President Donald Trump restricted travel from China effective Feb. 2, which likely saved lives. But by the time the president acted, much of the damage had already been unleashed, and some 18,000 Americans returned home from China in February and March, after the restrictions were in place. It’s unclear how intensive, if at all, the screening was for the Americans coming home at that point.
John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said the spread of the coronavirus through international travel was “not new.”
“We’ve seen this with H1N1, SARS, Zika. We should have had the infrastructure to prepare for this. And we didn’t, Brownstein said.
“There was a lack of recognition that a coronavirus emerging in a market in Wuhan could be at our door in a matter of months. Now that it’s hitting the U.S., for the first time really, people are aware of the interconnection and risk,” he added.