An analysis of Commerce Department travel entry records and private aviation data obtained by The Associated Press shows that nearly 8,000 Chinese nationals and foreign residents of the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau entered the U.S. on more than 600 commercial and private flights in the first three months after a U.S. travel ban was imposed in May.
When U.S. residents flying from mainland China arrived at U.S. airports, the system meant to flag and monitor them for the development of symptoms lost track of at least 1,600 people in just the first few days the ban was in effect, according to an internal state government email obtained by the AP.
President Donald Trump on Jan. 31 announced the original travel ban on any non-U.S. residents who had recently been in mainland China. His move came after Chinese officials acknowledged a new highly contagious and deadly virus was spreading through the city of Wuhan.
Travelers from Hong Kong and Macau were exempted from that ban. They did not face the same enhanced screening and quarantine procedures required of Americans and others returning from Wuhan and China's mainland.
Flight records provided to the AP by FlightAware, an international aviation tracking company, show that more than 5,600 Chinese and foreign nationals from the two administrative zones flew to the U.S. in February. Those totals dropped to 2,100 in March and just 150 in April, Commerce Department travel entry records show.
There is no clear evidence that the small but steady flow of people from Hong Kong and Macau introduced covid-19 cases in the U.S. in January or in the months since, but the exemptions "certainly undercut the purpose of the ban," said Dr. Ronald Waldman, a professor of Global Health at George Washington University.
None of the agencies involved in crafting and announcing the China ban -- the National Security Council, the State Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services -- would comment on why Hong Kong and Macau were exempted. In a brief statement, the State Department declined to "comment on internal policy decisions" and deferred to the White House, which did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation.Gallery: Travel ban photos from February, March
When Trump's China travel restrictions took effect Feb. 2, at least 15 cases of the new coronavirus had already been detected in Hong Kong, along with one death, and seven more cases had been found in Macau. All the initial Macau cases were later traced to the outbreak in Wuhan.
As of last week, the former British colony had registered 1,248 cases and seven deaths, and Macau had 46 cases.
The CDC's warnings on Hong Kong and Macau have been raised to the agency's highest alert level, urging Americans to "avoid all nonessential travel."
Since that time, there has been a turnabout. Hong Kong has banned U.S. citizens and other international travelers from arriving by air.
If the flow of Americans to Hong Kong and Macau was stifled, the stream of Americans and others coming back to the U.S. from mainland China was unabated. Also, the program to screen them had problems.
Federal health officials planned to funnel the thousands of people returning from China through 11 airports for health screenings, but the effort immediately ran into problems.
"Hearing word of people already leaking through screening system and ending up in states without the funneling airports," a CDC employee wrote to several state health officials Feb. 6, soon after the program began, according to an email obtained by the AP through a public records request.
CDC spokesman Scott Pauley said the agency didn't get accurate traveler information from customs officials with the Department of Homeland Security, who were responsible for gathering passenger data at airports.
The CDC said some 26,000 travelers from China were screened in February. The agency acknowledged that data problems contributed to thousands of notifications not being sent to state health departments. Because of these problems, the CDC has since issued a rule requiring airlines to report passenger data directly to the agency during public health crises.
Even when notifications were sent to states, the information wasn't reliable, frustrating local officials worried about getting in touch with them quickly enough to prevent any spread.
The data was plagued by bad telephone numbers, erroneous itineraries and people claiming they had never even been to China. Because the CDC wasn't able to verify the information, the agency told local officials it was trusting that people were telling the truth, according to internal notes shared among California officials.
Information for this article was contributed by Candice Choi, Michael Rezendes, Colleen Long, Deb Riechmann and Ken Moritsugu of The Associated Press.