Cantwell Questions Administration Officials About Coronavirus Testing, Demands Better Coordination With Aviation Sector

March 4, 2020

Opening Statement Video |Q&A Video

Criticizes DOT and CDC for Failure to Provide Airlines with Aircraft Cleaning Protocols or Guidance

COVID-19 Epidemic Has Already Claimed Ten Lives in Washington State

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a hearing to discuss the role of the aviation industry in mitigating the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, pressed Trump administration officials for more information and better coordination across government agencies and with the private sector.

“We are working hard in the state of Washington, but the numbers continue to increase,” Cantwell said. “All the while, people are experiencing symptoms, and yet not getting tested. This is the main focus I believe we need to communicate today – that we need to have a robust testing regime, all academic and commercial facilities across the United States, participating in a testing process. This will give us better information, and it will get us more information about the spread, the community spread, of this disease.”

Cantwell pressed Dr. Stephen Redd, the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for more information on the virus and how it could impact air travel:

“How long can virus material last on a surface?” Cantwell asked.

“The virus can last hours to a day, that’s been the estimate, it’s similar to other coronaviruses,” Redd said.

Cantwell: Up to a whole day?

Dr. Redd: Yes, ma’am.

Cantwell: Up to a whole day? Okay. I’ve not heard that before, but glad you’re clarifying that.

The hearing comes one day after the Ranking Member sent letters to every major airline and airport in the country asking for details on their plans of action, so as to fully understand what measures will be taken to protect passengers, aircraft crew, and the general public.

In her remarks, Ranking Member Cantwell also lauded the University of Washington for its leadership in updating their flu testing to include testing for the coronavirus: “Seattle Flu Study was a research institution, everybody working collaboratively to study and analyze flu results. Obviously you had to consent to be in that, that is how we caught the one student—the individual student thought they were sick with the flu, and then three days, four days later when we finally changed the protocol for who could get tested, they tested positive…Every city in America should be doing this.”

There are 39 known cases in Washington state, 10 people have died, and hundreds more are being monitored by public health officials. The Washington State Department of Health has created a site to answer frequently asked questions and provide background. 

An individual in North Carolina tested positive for the virus after visiting a nursing home in the greater Seattle area at the center of the outbreak. Said Cantwell: “This underscores the importance of making sure the aviation sector is also prepared to mitigate the impacts of the virus. After all, there are more than 44,000 flights in this country every day, and more than 2.7 million people fly in and out of our U.S. airports.”

After Dr. Redd and Joel Szabat, Department of Transportation Acting Under Secretary for Policy, were unable to provide a clear answer to which agency or agencies had the authority to provide guidance and standards to airports and airlines, Cantwell closed with:   

“We need to understand what we are saying to the flying public about what the airlines should be doing, what we should be doing to create the best and most positive environment for air transportation to continue. So let’s get this protocol clearly established. Let’s work together, get it established.”