By Elise Viebeck - 10/21/14 05:39 PM EDT
All travelers from countries affected by the Ebola epidemic will now travel through one of five major U.S. airports, officials announced Tuesday.
Under pressure from lawmakers, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is redirecting flights nationwide in an attempt to prevent more people from bringing Ebola across the border.
Now, people arriving from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will be required to travel through one of those ports of entry to ensure they undergo an interview and a temperature check.
The White House said the move would help “ensure the safety and security of the American public.” Press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration was “pleased” the new restrictions would take effect this week.
“This is relatively creative policymaking,” Earnest said.
“This is a situation where the DHS had to work with the airlines that are flying passengers from a wide variety of countries from Europe to the United States. It did require some work with the State Department to inform other countries. So there’s a lot of coordination that had to go into developing and implementing this policy.”
The White House said it remains opposed to a flight ban, which the president and health officials argue would be counterproductive.
“The fact of the matter is giving individuals an incentive to conceal their travel history only puts the American public at risk. ... It makes it harder for us to determine which individuals need to be subjected to the screening that we’ve described,” Earnest said.
Officials are imposing the restrictions at a time when Republicans and some Democrats are pushing for a flight ban from West Africa until the epidemic is contained. The idea has picked up steam on the Senate campaign trail, where criticism of the White House’s response to Ebola is increasingly frequent.
Seventy-four House members have backed a travel ban so far, according to a list kept by The Hill. Surveys also show it would have support from a majority of the public.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the new restrictions were only “a good start.”
“Funneling all passengers through these five airports helps close a gap that could have allowed affected travelers into our country with no screening at all,” Upton wrote in a statement. “But certainly not a complete solution.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Tuesday stressed that the new screening protocols are comprehensive, and he pushed back on calls for curbing travel.
“We currently have in place measures to identify and screen anyone at all land, sea and air ports of entry into the United States who we have reason to believe has been present in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea in the preceding 21 days,” he said in a statement.
The White House said the airlines would cover the cost of rebooking passengers scheduled to arrive at U.S. airports that are not on the designated list. A spokesman estimated the number would be smaller than 10 people per day.
Roughly 1,000 people travel to the United States every week from West Africa.
The announcement interrupted a lull in U.S. news about Ebola after more than two weeks of wall-to-wall media coverage. Officials around the country are working to recover from lapses over the last month while preparing for future cases.
In Texas, officials sought to close the book Tuesday on Ebola care at the troubled Dallas hospital that was at the center of the small U.S. outbreak.
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, which cared for index patient Thomas Eric Duncan, will no longer treat Ebola cases after the state designates two specialized healthcare units for that purpose, Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced.
Two Dallas nurses infected with the virus were moved last week to highly equipped facilities in Atlanta and Bethesda, Md.
Like their state counterparts, federal health officials are coming around to the view that Ebola patients should get care at specialized treatment centers as opposed to local hospitals.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden expressed this opinion late Monday as he described new, tighter guidelines for Ebola care. “There is a need for specialized center when there is a patient with a confirmed Ebola case,” Frieden said.
While the American Nurses Association welcomed those guidelines, the nation’s largest labor federation said more worker protections are needed.
In a letter to the White House, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said President Obama should use executive action to impose comprehensive standards for healthcare professionals working to stop infectious diseases.
Rules should include specific protocols ordering the use of air purifying respirators and full-body suits and requiring extensive hands-on training.
“Immediate action is needed,” Trumka wrote to Obama. “Comprehensive standards to protect workers from all infectious disease agents must be issued.”
In the meantime, passengers from the West African countries will be required to travel through the five major airports starting Wednesday.
As part of the screening process, passengers are interviewed about their travel history and possible exposure to Ebola. They also undergo a temperature check, as fever is one of Ebola’s earliest symptoms. There are no rapid diagnostic tests for the disease.
The screenings are designed to alert officials to passengers who may be at high risk of carrying the virus, even if they do not catch every Ebola case. Travelers also provide identification and contact information in the United States, allowing public health officials to follow up if needed.
— This story was first posted at 12:06 p.m. and was updated at 7:52 p.m.