Air Travel Contact Tracing: CDC’s Data System Needs Substantial Improvement

What the GAO found

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plays a key role in air travel contact tracing—the process of identifying and notifying passengers who may have come into contact with a person infected with a contagious disease during a flight. However, several factors affect CDC’s ability to collect timely, accurate, and complete air passenger information to support contact tracing by local public health authorities. For example, airlines may not have accurate and complete passenger information to share with CDC because the contact information provided to book a ticket may be for a third party, such as a travel agent. , not for passengers. Further, because no single, complete, and reliable source of passenger information exists, CDC often conducts research to fill in the gaps, lengthening the time it takes to share information with local public health authorities.

Overview of Air Passenger Contact Information Collection Process

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC has taken several actions to improve the quality of the information it collects. For example, starting in November 2021, the CDC has required airlines to collect certain information—including name, phone number, email, and physical address—no more than 72 hours before departure from passengers traveling on flights to the United States. United and transmit the information to CDC in a prescribed format.

However, limitations in how CDC collects and manages air passenger contact information—including CDC’s use of an outdated data management system—hinder the agency’s ability to monitor public health risks and facilitate tracking of contacts. The data management system – developed in the mid-2000s – was not designed for the rapid assessment or collection of public health data on individual cases. For example, the CDC is unable to quickly and accurately identify the number of passengers exposed to a specific infected passenger on a flight. Nor does the system contain the necessary data fields to assess the quality of air passenger information CDC receives, such as a field to define timelines for airline responses to CDC’s request. Consequently, CDC is not positioned to efficiently analyze and disseminate data to inform public health policy and respond to disease threats. Nor is it positioned to assess its performance in collecting and sharing quality passenger information.

Why did the GAO do this study?

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of public health measures aimed at controlling the transmission of communicable diseases. Air travel can play a role in the rapid spread of infectious diseases throughout the world and across communities. Given this potential, contact tracing for air passengers is an important measure to protect public health.

GAO was asked to review CDC’s process for collecting and managing air passenger contact information to facilitate contact tracing. This report addresses: (1) factors affecting CDC’s ability to collect this information, (2) recent actions CDC has taken to improve the quality of the information it collects, and (3) how effectively it collects and manages this information. information.

GAO reviewed relevant federal documentation, including regulations, orders, technical guidance, and public comments, as well as available CDC data. GAO also interviewed officials from the CDC, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Federal Aviation Administration, and selected representatives from the aviation, travel, and public health industries.

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