Contact tracing for air travel: CDC data system needs significant improvement

What the GAO found

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plays a key role in contact tracing for air travel, i.e. the process of identifying and notifying passengers who may have been in contact with a person infected with a communicable disease during a flight. However, several factors affect the 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, as the contact information provided to book a ticket may be that of a third party, such as a travel agency, and not the passengers. . Additionally, because there is no single, complete, and reliable source of passenger information, the CDC often conducts research to fill in the gaps, extending the time it takes to share information with local public health authorities. .

Overview of the Air Passenger Contact Information Collection Process

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

However, limitations in how the CDC collects and manages air passenger contact information, including the CDC’s use of an outdated data management system, hamper the agency’s ability to monitor risks. for public health and to facilitate contact tracing. The data management system, developed in the mid-2000s, was not designed for rapid assessment or aggregation 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. The system also lacks the data fields needed to assess the quality of air passenger information the CDC receives, such as a field to determine the timeliness of airline responses to the CDC’s request. Consequently, the CDC is unable to effectively analyze and disseminate data to inform public health policy and respond to disease threats. Nor is it in a position to assess its performance in collecting and sharing quality passenger information.

Why GAO Did 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 communicable diseases across the world and in 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 discusses: (1) factors that affect 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.

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