The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is preparing to possibly begin to take passengers’ temperatures at airports in the U.S. Above, a passenger goes through a TSA screening in Chicago.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is preparing to possibly begin to take passengers’ temperatures at airports in the U.S. Above, a passenger goes through a TSA screening in Chicago.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is preparing to possibly add a new element to its pre-boarding screening procedures in the U.S. airports: checking temperatures. If approved, the new measure could be rolled out at about a dozen airports as soon as next week, the Wall Street Journal reported.

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Airlines have been pushing for temperature checks at airports in order to mitigate passenger fears about the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, and keep people that could possibly be ill off planes. Details of the plan are being reviewed by the White House and are subject to change. A federal health official confirmed the report to CNN and stressed that it was not final yet.

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Officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have also advocated for thermal scanning to bolster consumer confidence in the safety of air travel and help jump-start the economy, the Journal reported.

A senior official in the Trump Administration told the Journal that the initial rollout of temperature checks at airports is expected to cost less than $20 million. A fever is one of the most common symptoms of the disease. Passengers will not be charged an additional fee for the screening.

To scan passengers, TSA officials would likely use a mix of tripods that can scan multiple people at once and handheld thermal devices, according to the Journal. Passengers with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher would be flagged.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the U.S. travel sector and forced airlines to cut schedules and park their planes. This week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the international airline trade association, said that demand for air travel had dropped more than 90 percent in the U.S. and Europe since the pandemic began. IATA does not expect air travel to return to pre-crisis levels until 2023.

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Nonetheless, some officials at the TSA aren’t too comfortable with the idea of temperature scanning. Per the Journal, these officials do not believe the task falls within the scope of the agency’s security mission. In addition, some officials think a passenger’s temperature is a poor indicator of coronavirus infection given that asymptomatic passengers do not have fevers.

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Officials also worry the measure could prevent people with other medical conditions from traveling.

The TSA officials are not alone in its concern over temperature screenings. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is opposed to screening passengers at airports and has tried to persuade the White House to reconsider the plan. Currently, the plan contemplates turning over people who have a fever at airports to the CDC.

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“Thermal scanning as proposed is a poorly designed control and detection strategy as we have learned very clearly,”  said Dr. Martin Cetron, the CDC’s director of global mitigation and quarantine, in an email to DHS officials earlier this month. “We should be concentrating our CDC resources where there is impact and a probability of mission success.” 

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The CDC has experience with temperature scanning. The agency screened 30,000 passengers at the beginning of the outbreak and did not detect a single covid-19 case, a CNN investigation found. However, some passengers that had gone through temperature checks later tested positive for the virus.

Cetron asked the White House earlier this month to leave the CDC out of its airport screening plan. Whether that request has been taken into consideration will remain to be seen.

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[The Wall Street Journal]