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From South America to Hawaii Without A Single Health Check

Ryan Finnerty
Passengers line up at Arturo Benitez Airport in Santiago, Chile. Many were Americans trying to get home before the cancellaion of commerical flights.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, Americans returning to the U.S. were entering the country without any health screening.

Nearly 14,000 Americans are stuck overseas due to canceled flights and border closures.

The highest level of travel alert has been issued by State Department, directing Americans not to travel overseas, and those already abroad to return immediately.

Despite the clear and present danger posed by the Covid-19 virus, at least some U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning home are not being screened for possible infection.

I know because I am one of them.

I went to Chile in early March for the wedding of a close friend. There fewer than 10 cases of Covid-19 in the entire country and only 2 in Hawaii, where I left from.

The U.S. State Department had not issued any virus-related travel warnings for Chile.

Upon arriving in the capital Santiago, my temperature was checked, my travel history was reviewed and I had to declare any symptoms that I was currently experiencing.

That would prove to be far more substantial than any check performed at a U.S. port of entry.

Although everything was normal when I arrived in Chile, before long, the number of coronavirus cases began to increase and the Chilean national government took action to close public spaces, limit personal movement, and close the border to foreigners.

Soon after, airlines began canceling flights and the U.S. Embassy sent an ominous email advising Americans to leave the country or prepare to shelter in place for an indefinite length of time.

My initial flight from Santiago to Dallas-Fort Worth was canceled when American Airlines announced major cuts to international service.

It would ultimately take four itinerary changes, but I was finally able to secure a flight from Santiago to Atlanta on Delta Airlnes.

Riding to the airport on the outskirts of Santiago, the normally packed freeway was almost empty during rush hour.

Chileans evidently took their government’s calls for social distancing more seriously than many Americans. Our local friends said it perpetually felt like Sunday morning in Santiago.

The country’s largest city had begun to shut down.

After saying goodbye to my friend, who was taking me to the airport as a consolation prize for her wedding being canceled, I went inside and joined the hundreds of people in line for flights.

The crowd was one of the largest I have ever seen in an airport. Lines containing hundreds of people snaked through the check-in area.

Most appeared bound for the United States or Canada. Many wore face masks. There was a family on vacation from Raleigh, North Carolina. A federal government contractor trying to get home to sign for a new mortgage. A pregnant Chilean woman with two young boys was trying to get out of the city.

My group had arrived several hours early and everything went smoothly. Chilean screeners asked about our travel history, but no other physical health check was performed.

Before long we were airborne, headed toward the U.S. Nine hours later we landed in Atlanta, where we had been told the CDC would be checking everyone arriving in the country for signs of illness.

But that never happened.

After waiting for several minutes, the lead flight attendant made an announcement in English that the CDC would not be meeting us and that we were free to deplane. Murmurs of concern could be heard throughout the crowd.

Credit Ryan Finnerty
A nearly empty flight from Atlanta to Honolulu. Upon landing, no health screening measures were in place and no announcement was made about local social distancing orders.

The situation wasn’t any better at the customs checkpoint. After waiting in line for 15 minutes, closely crowded with fellow fliers, I was asked the standard customs questions about where I had been and for what purpose.  I gave standard customs answers and was promptly waved through.

The process took 70 seconds. There was no health check of any kind.

After clearing the TSA security checkpoint, I met a group in the terminal returning to the U.S. from Africa. They also had not been screened by CDC.

After another nine-hour flight, I landed in Honolulu. The flight was nearly empty. A few residents and servicemembers were scattered throughout the cabin. Twenty students in a tour group from Japan were the only sign of tourists.

Within minutes, I was outside waiting for a ride. Once again, there was no health screening.

There was also no announcement regarding the closure of most business and restaurants, which had recently been ordered by state and local authorities. There were no instructions for self-quarantining and no resources provided for getting more information.

Other than the sparsely filled cabin, there was no indication that I was in some kind of exceptional situation.

Although everyone arriving in Hawaii will be required to self-quarantine starting Thursday, the lack of border controls for both Americans and foreign visitors may have allowed the COVID-19 virus to spread undetected in Hawaii for weeks.

Maybe Chile and South Africa, which have around 900 and 700 confirmed cases of the virus respectively, were not considered a big enough risk to justify the use of in-demand government resources to check new arrivals.

But in less than one month, the number of cases in Chile rose from 9 to 900. That would seem like reason enough to have at least some basic health checks at our ports of entry.

Ryan Finnerty
Ryan Finnerty was Hawaiʻi Public Radio's multi-award-winning Government and Public Policy reporter focusing on state and county politics, business, economics, the military, science, and the environment.
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