The federal government is doing that thing again. The thing where its COVID-19 response and messaging appears to flail in response to the chaos of what’s happening on the ground — and what’s not happening in the skies. Regarding the latter, the US has seen thousands of flights canceled since Friday, as the Omicron Covid variant keeps burning through the ranks of airline employees. Subsequently causing the number of airline staffers out sick in recent days to explode.
We’ll come to the CDC’s guideline change in response to all this in a moment.
As of Tuesday morning, major airlines were canceling tons of flights for the fifth day in a row. Due in part to winter weather, but especially because of the consequences stemming from Omicron. On Tuesday morning, the flight-tracking website FlightAware showed that 2,182 flights scheduled to depart today were canceled. With a little less than a third of those either bound within, into, or out of the US. Cancelations like these, it should be noted, seem to have also helped spur the CDC to announce a big change in its guidelines on Monday.
Flights canceled today
First, a word about the flights canceled.
The industry was already expecting a pretty substantial Christmas surge heading into the holiday weekend. Indeed, the TSA said it screened 13.6 million people in recent days — almost twice the number it screened this time last year.
The cancelations since Friday, meanwhile, have been widespread across the industry. With carriers including Delta, American, United, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue among those that have slashed flights. Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, wrote the following Sunday in a message to pilots that was reported by CNBC: “Our current pilot Covid-19 case count is on the rise. Pilots who have developed symptoms are also in quarantine and we have a high number of pilots on the sick list.”
Delta alone canceled about 5% of its flights scheduled on Monday. That number was down to 3% on Tuesday. Flight delays, meanwhile, have been similarly extensive. Tuesday morning, FlightAware was showing more than 2,000 total delays within, into, or out of the US.
New CDC Covid guidelines
Now, speaking of Delta? Its CEO Ed Bastian sent a letter to CDC director Rochelle Walensky in recent days. In it, he asked the agency to shorten the timeframe its quarantine guidelines specify that someone should quarantine. If they’re vaccinated and get a breakthrough COVID-19 infection, that is.
He pointed to the impact that the extensive quarantines are having on the agency’s staffing levels. “The 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations,” he wrote in the letter, which you can check out here.
Accordingly, the CDC on Monday announced that the 10 days have now been cut to just five. Importantly, that’s for asymptomatic people who test positive. This has led to criticism, though, that the health agency is adjusting in response to business concerns. And not necessarily to scientific and public health imperatives. Indeed, this was the message in a statement from the largest flight attendants union in the US, in response to the CDC announcement.
“If any business pressures a worker to return to work before they feel better we will make clear it is an unsafe work environment, which will cause a much greater disruption than any ’staffing shortages,’” reads a statement from Sara Nelson, international president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union.
Fauci: We’re trying to keep society “running smoothly”
White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, meanwhile, says the change is part of a balancing act the federal government has tried to pull off for the last two years. The goal is maximizing public health, while also maintaining an orderly functioning of society.
“With the sheer volume of new cases that we are having and that we expect to continue with Omicron, one of the things that we want to be careful of is that we don’t have so many people (out sick from their jobs),” Fauci told CNN. “We want to get people back to the jobs. Particularly the essential jobs, to keep society running smoothly.”