The Government Accountability Office said that outdated data collection habits result in difficulty contact tracing for COVID infections among airlines.
Data for contact tracing COVID-19 infections during air travel needs to improve at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with oversight agencies arguing that the current, manual method is outdated.
The Government Accountability Office published a new report spotlighting inefficiencies within the CDC’s procedures surrounding the agency’s contact tracing aboard commercial flights, a central conduit for virus transmission.
“CDC has faced long-standing challenges to collecting and sharing timely, accurate and complete contact information for air passengers with local public health authorities to facilitate contact tracing,” the report reads.
After surveying major commercial airline companies including American, Spirit, United and Southwest Airlines, as well as interviewing industry experts amid the pandemic, GAO authors found that the CDC’s Quarantine Activity Reporting System needed major updates surrounding its data entry procedures.
GAO officials noted that the QARS relies on manual data entry and allows broad organizational access to passenger health data, both of which lead to errors and inconsistencies in data reporting. Additionally, the large volume of contract employees doesn’t support data entry regulations needed for precise COVID-19 documentation and contact tracing.
“Federal standards for internal controls highlight the importance of adopting and implementing controls for data entry and information processing to maximize data quality,” the report noted.
Three solutions were posed to the CDC by the GAO, and centered on redesigning QARS or deploying a new data system outright to facilitate the entering and storing of contact tracing data. The agency also recommended having the CDC director assess additional opportunities to improve the quality of air passenger information and further standardize the data repository with consistent validation checks.
One way to accomplish this is through automation, which officials advised the CDC to apply to its data collection processes.
“Automating the collection of data collected from various sources, such as airlines and other federal agencies, would reduce the risk of data entry errors and inconsistencies resulting from manual data entry,” Heather Krause, the Director of Physical Infrastructure at GAO told Nextgov.
GAO did acknowledge that external factors impede the CDC’s data collection ability, namely limitations in participating airlines and passengers. GAO officials also acknowledged that the CDC has taken mitigating steps to improve accuracy in airline data collection over the course of the ongoing pandemic.