NEW YORK, N.Y. – In the weeks before President Donald Trump spoke from the Oval Office to announce restrictions on travelers from more than two dozen countries in Europe, thousands of people from the region already had stepped off planes at U.S. airports, and an untold number of them carried the coronavirus.
The same can be said of flights from China in the weeks before the U.S. clamped down on those. Thousands who visited the country where the illness began had entered the United States without any kind of health review.
Such sobering realities highlight just one element of the federal government's shortcomings in getting ahead of the virus and halting its spread from overseas travelers.
A day-by-day review of the spread of an unfamiliar virus from its earliest days shows U.S. officials have often been slow to respond or steps behind, with critical gaps in containment measures such as travel restrictions and airport screenings that allowed the crisis to grow to more than 2,100 infections and 51 deaths.
“There have been gaps in the way the U.S. has approached its response, which has not been comprehensive enough to contain the virus at the early stages of the epidemic,” said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
That was evident from the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. On Jan. 15, a 35-year-old man returned home to Washington state through the Seattle airport after traveling to Wuhan, China, where the virus was already spreading. He would become the nation's first known case. Shortly before, on Jan. 13, a woman in her 60s arrived home through the Chicago airport after traveling to Wuhan. She would be Chicago's first known case.
Both of those travelers came to U.S. days before the federal government began screenings for passengers who traveled through Wuhan at three U.S. international airports, New York's Kennedy, San Francisco and Los Angeles. That list was expanded on Jan. 21 to include hubs in Chicago and Atlanta. Seattle-Tacoma wouldn’t be added to the list until Jan. 28.
Also, there's no guarantee those screenings — which involved passengers filling out health forms and having their temperatures taken — would have caught those early patients, who didn't report symptoms until later. U.S. researchers say screenings may miss half of COVID-19 infected people, since they may not develop symptoms for several days.