The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) needs to re-design its data management system to ensure that it collects and delivers timely, accurate, and complete air passenger information to support contact tracing by local public health authorities, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The CDC plays a key role in contact tracing for air travel. But, according to GAO, several factors hinder the CDC’s ability to monitor public health risks and facilitate contact tracing – including the use of an outdated data management system.

The CDC’s data management system – which was developed in the mid-2000s—was not designed for rapid assessment or aggregation of public health data across individual cases. The system also does not contain the necessary data fields to assess the quality of air passenger information the CDC receives.

“Consequently, the CDC is not positioned to efficiently analyze and disseminate data to inform public health policies and respond to disease threats. Nor is it positioned to evaluate its performance in collecting and sharing quality passenger information,” the report noted.

GAO did acknowledge that the CDC has taken some steps to improve its collection of air travel data. For example, at the start of the pandemic, the CDC required airlines to collect certain information—including name, phone number, email, and physical address—no more than 72 hours before departure from passengers traveling on flights into the United States and to transmit the information to CDC in a defined format.

However, airlines may not have accurate and complete information about passengers to share with CDC, especially when trips are organized through a third party. In addition, there is no single, complete, and reliable source of passenger information available. While CDC officials often research to fill in the gaps, this extends the time it takes to share information with local public health authorities.

To resolve these issues GAO is making three recommendations:

  • The CDC Director should implement controls for the entry of data into its Quarantine Activity Reporting System (QARS);
  • The CDC Director should assess additional opportunities to improve the quality of air passenger information it collects and manages and take appropriate action based on this assessment; and
  • The CDC Director should re-design QARS or deploy a new data system that would allow CDC to facilitate contact tracing more effectively for air passengers and conduct disease surveillance for air travel.

The CDC concurred with the recommendations.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.