As China has relaxed its zero-COVID policy and made it much easier for travelers to come and go, a surge of infections has prompted some countries, including the United States, to impose new testing requirements for anyone arriving from China.
Each Chinese traveler boarding a flight from mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau must present a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than two days prior. Beijing has pushed back on the increased screening, even though each foreign traveler entering China must also present a negative COVID-19 test.
VOA Mandarin White House Correspondent Paris Huang spoke with Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, senior adviser for the White House COVID Response Team, about the newly implemented COVID restrictions on travelers from China. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: When we talk about the newly implemented COVID-19 restrictions on travelers from China, what type of test results will be accepted? Does it have to be from a reputable company like Abbott, with a QR code or lab or doctor’s note, or simply a photo of the test kit?
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia: What's required is a viral test that looks for current infections. It can be a nucleic acid amplification test such as a PCR or a rapid antigen test, as long as it's testing to see if you might currently be infected. And what passengers are required to do is to present the test results, which includes a certain amount of information: the sample collection date, the name of the entity or the lab that conducted the test, passenger information and the type of test that was used. Passengers can also use self-tests if they have a component which includes telehealth services associated with a manufacturer, which includes real time video and audio supervision. So, for example, when I've traveled globally in the past, I would do the self-test with the proctored telehealth service. I would then receive a test result in my email which I can then either take with me to the airport, or upload if the airline allows that beforehand. And there's a whole list of the accepted tests available and accepted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on their website.
VOA: So it has to be from a third party or a certified company providing that result? It cannot be just a photocopy or a photo of the test kit?
Bhadelia: Not a photo of the test kit. It has to be a test result that has the data that is required for the airlines to determine whether the test was conducted within the right timeframe by an entity who might be able to provide supervision on how the test was done.
VOA: Who will be checking those certificates? How will the Transportation Security Administration authenticate a legitimate test result and how will they identify a counterfeit test result?
Bhadelia: I think the important part is that airlines here will be looking for the test results to have that necessary information and they'll make a determination when, for example, a translation is required. So this is an important point if you're traveling and the test results that you have are in another language. You may want to call the airline beforehand just to ensure that it has information that you need to be able to be accepted for travel.
VOA: When the travelers land here at the airport in the United States, will the TSA ask them to produce the test results for a second verification?
Bhadelia: We ask that passengers keep their tests. They may or may not be asked, but that's not a requirement. But they should hold on to that test result during their travel.
VOA: What is the punishment if someone has fake test results? Anything beyond denial of entry?
Bhadelia: The CDC order mentions that activities such as providing inaccurate or misleading information to the government can be subject to criminal offense charges.
VOA: How do you trace someone traveling to United States through a third country, especially if they stay there for a couple of days before coming to the United States?
Bhadelia: This is important and it can be confusing for passengers. One of the things that the order requires is that if you are in one of the designated airports as a stopover before you come to the U.S., and you have been in either mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau, that you are going to get a test. And then in those designated airports, you will also be required to present a test that you've done before traveling the United States.
The three airports that are designated are Vancouver International Airport, Toronto Pearson Airport and Incheon Airport in South Korea. At those three airports you will also be required as someone who may have traveled to mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau to present a negative test.
VOA: What happens if the traveler produced a negative test result when entering the United States, but then tested positive? What's the next step?
Bhadelia: The big goal here is to identify patients or travelers who may be positive so we're able to slow the appearance of new cases, the genomic data for which we don't have enough background on.
If you do test positive after arriving, you should isolate at home and keep distance from others in your household, provide good ventilation in your home, follow all the good practices the CDC provides for isolation of patients who may be positive.
Here's an important part. You may qualify if you are a high-risk patient for treatment with oral antiviral medications that we know can help reduce severe disease or hospitalizations. So one of the other things that we ask patients to do is just to call your health care provider to make sure that you test yourself to see if you're eligible for those antivirals. Or if you don't have one, look at covid.gov, which can direct you to places where you might be able to get access to treatment.
VOA: Will foreigners still be able to get the health care they need?
Bhadelia: For visitors here in the U.S., I think it’s going to depend on your hotel’s proximity clinics, your national insurance and other factors. But yes, absolutely. Anybody who's sick should be able to seek care.
VOA: Can travelers from China get new mRNA vaccines? Would you recommend that they get the latest boosters here?
Bhadelia: Yeah, CDC recommends that everybody stays updated with vaccinations. We know that it helps reduce severe illness, hospitalization and, God forbid, death. And anybody who's interested in getting a vaccination when you arrive in the U.S., you can check vaccines.gov. And again, if you want to access tests, you can also look at covid.gov. It's the same thing with treatment. Anybody who's seeking medical care can look for more information available on those sites.
VOA: Who is paying for the treatment, vaccines and test kits? Taxpayers or travelers?
Bhadelia: Well, I think the way to look at this is that every positive case that we identify and isolate is allowing us to ensure that more community transmission is not occurring. And so it is actually in the interest of the greater global good to ensure that anybody who requires a test is tested, and if they identify themselves as positive, that they're able to isolate.