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Southwest Airlines suspends employee contact tracing amid COVID-19 surge

Date: January 11, 2022

By David Slotnick, The Points Guy

Southwest Airlines has suspended its workplace contract tracing program when employees test positive for COVID-19.

In a memo to employees viewed by TPG, the airline said that the national increase in cases driven by the omicron variant has made contact tracing less effective and more difficult to administer as the airline sees an uptick in employee cases, mirroring that in the general population. The airline said it would temporarily pause the contact tracing program.

Under CDC guidelines, people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster do not need to isolate following close contact with someone who has the virus. Those people should get tested after five days, the CDC says, and wear a mask around others for at least 10 days.

The airline also said it would lower its required isolation period for COVID-positive employees from 10 days to five days, as long as the person in question has been fever-free for 24 hours, aligning with the decreased isolation guidance issued by the CDC late last month.

It was not immediately clear whether any other major airline had suspended their contact tracing programs, although American confirmed to TPG that it continues to inform employees of close contacts with coworkers who test positive.

The decision to suspend contact tracing comes as airlines have grappled with staffing shortages caused by a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases among employees.

Airlines canceled roughly 20,000 flights over the holiday travel period due to staffing shortages, which were exacerbated by severe winter weather at major airports across the country.

In the days before Christmas, Delta and JetBlue, along with U.S. airline trade organization Airlines for America, called on the CDC to lower its isolation guideline for those with COVID.

Southwest has suffered a significant impact from the shortages and weather issues since New Year’s Eve, canceling 3,788 flights between Dec. 31 and Jan. 7, according to FlightAware, roughly 15% of its scheduled flights.

As of 10:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, Southwest had canceled 320 flights for the day or 10% of those scheduled.

The airline also said in the memo that it would offer five days of isolation pay for employees who test positive, including unvaccinated employees, reversing an earlier policy that restricted the isolation pay to staff who had received the shot. In the memo, the airline further reminded employees not to come to work if they have COVID-19 symptoms.

Southwest did not immediately return a request for comment.

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