ABC News joint investigation with detained TV stations sheds new light on the likely flow of coronavirus from global hotspots to the United States and provides insight into the toll the virus has had on some of the earliest Americans interact with international travelers: airport employees.
From December to March, when serious epidemics erupted in China, then Italy and Spain, among others, thousands of flights from the most affected countries flocked to American cities, according to an ABC News analysis. 20 million flight records obtained from the Flightradar-24 tracking service.
While it is not clear how many passengers in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus, medical experts told ABC News that such a large pool of people almost ensures that a certain number is reached highly contagious disease.
“In the case of the coronavirus, you have the interface of a rapidly spreading virus,” said Dr. John Brownstein, epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and contributor to ABC News.
Data shows 3,200 flights flew from China to the United States, of which more than 1,000 flights to Los Angeles and nearly 500 each landed in San Francisco and New York – all three of the possible points of the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States More than 100 flights from China have arrived in six other American cities: Chicago, Seattle, Detroit, Dallas, Washington, DC and Newark, NJ
According to travel data previously obtained by ABC News, these flights resulted in more than 761,000 Chinese nationals entering the United States and the United States returning from the People’s Republic of China during this critical four-month period.
Brownstein said the massive trips meant that the flow of the virus to the United States and other countries likely came quickly after it began to spread rapidly in China. “So we believe that even as early as January, we were witnessing case introductions around the world and more specifically in the United States,” he said.
The flow of these passengers in these key cities provides a window into how quickly the virus has spread to the United States.
Of the thefts, 50 were direct from Wuhan, the Chinese metropolis where the epidemic is believed to have started. Twenty-seven of these flights went to San Francisco and 23 to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The last flights from Wuhan arrived in early February, when the Trump administration imposed restrictions on flights from China to the United States.
But this new passenger and trip data obtained by ABC News revealed by the time the president took his steps – which administration officials say have saved lives – some of the damage had already been done.
The first case of coronavirus in the United States was reported in Washington State in late January, before being followed a few days later in Arizona and California. In each of these cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the infected people were recently in Wuhan.
But the nationwide person-to-person spread of the virus has made it more difficult to find the cause of specific outbreaks in many US cities.
“The United States banned travel to China 12 days after the world heard of a severe pneumonia epidemic in Wuhan. … The problem was that it was too late, “said Dr. Todd Ellerin, chief of infectious diseases at South Shore. Health and ABC News consultant. “Even though there had only been 12 confirmed cases in the United States on the day President Trump announced the travel ban, the reality was that there were many more unconfirmed cases. “
Flights from China weren’t the only ones coming from airports at international hot spots for the COVID-19 outbreak. ABC News also analyzed thousands of additional flights during the period from Italy and Spain, which had the highest number of cases outside the United States in late March.
From December to March 30, 353,000 foreign and American nationals entered the United States from Italy. 456,547 others came from Spain.
“Obviously, some of these were infected with either mild or asymptomatic symptoms. We were sowing this epidemic in many places, but we were going blind because we weren’t doing the proper tests that were necessary, “said Brownstein.
More than 1,400 direct flights from Italy landed in American cities from December to March, including more than 500 in February and March, making it an international focal point for the global pandemic. 2,255 additional flights from Spain landed in American cities.
The federal government closed most flights from Europe in mid-March, but by that time hundreds of flights from Italy had entered New York and Miami. Almost 100 of the flights between Italy and Miami took place in six weeks in February and early March before the United States imposed restrictions. March flights from Italy were also directed to major airports in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Newark, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio.
Also in March, more than 400 flights left Spain for 12 American cities. Almost half of these flights landed at two New York area airports: JFK and Newark Liberty. More than 100 have gone to Miami. Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles each took at least two dozen direct flights from Spain in March.
Flights from China, Italy and Spain have reached at least 15 states. In addition, during the same period, cities that took at least 100 flights from China, Italy and Spain were the departure points for flights to all states in the country, which could exasperate the interior spread.
And there is evidence that the flow of travel could have had a direct impact on the airport staff of the country.
More than 320 personnel from the Transportation Security, Customs and Border Protection have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to data obtained by ABC News. The number of airport security guards involved corresponds to access points, although it is unclear whether employees have contracted the virus from their jobs or from other person-to-person contacts.
Of the positive customs and border protection personnel, 52 were New York ports of entry, 20 were airports and facilities in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, 10 were yards from Los Angeles and 10 from New Jersey.
Analysis of international flights excluded more than 1,000 freight carrier routes and hundreds of additional flights to Alaska, where it was not possible to determine with certainty whether the flights – mainly from China – carried freight, passengers, or both.
John Kelly is director of data journalism for ABC-owned television stations.
This report has been updated.