Five airports to toughen Ebola screenings

Getty Images

Five of the nation’s busiest airports are working to immediately tighten screening for Ebola symptoms among travelers arriving from West Africa.

Passengers who arrive from Ebola-ravaged countries will be required to have their temperatures checked and answer questions about potential exposure to Ebola, an official from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed to The Hill.

The screenings will begin this weekend at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Four other airports will also implement the screenings: Washington Dulles International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, O’Hare International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Those five airports make up 94 percent of all travel from West African countries, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

On average, about 150 people per day would be targeted for the additional screenings, he said. He described the measures as a way to “enhance security and minimize disruption” to the broader traveling public.

Additional staff will be sent each of the airports, the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. Trained customs agents will observe the passengers for illness and ask “health and exposure” questions, while trained medical staff will take each person’s temperature. Healthy passengers will also be asked to continue monitoring their temperature on their own after arriving in the U.S. 

If a patient is experiencing Ebola-like symptoms, such as a fever, or their health form indicates possible exposure to the disease, they will receive further evaluation.

DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday that an at-risk person could be held in the U.S. 

“We have the authority to take measures with respect to U.S. citizens as well as noncitizens to ensure that public safety and security is not threatened,” Mayorkas told reporters.

Earnest said an interagency team from Customs and Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be responsible for implementing the new measures.

He added that the White House continued “to have a lot of confidence in the screening measures that are already in place,” and noted that dozens of people showing signs of Ebola had already been blocked from travel in West Africa.

Federal health officials said earlier this week that new procedures would be announced this week for airports and other entry points.

The U.S. has already taken precautions against Ebola in its airports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff are trained to check with symptoms and distribute information about the deadly disease. 

So far, West African travelers only have their temperatures checked and fill out forms while completing exit screenings. That approach drew criticism after an Ebola-infected man went through that type of screening in Liberia and arrived in the United States.

The additional screenings, though, would not have prevented that first case of Ebola from entering the U.S. The man, Thomas Eric Duncan, was diagnosed with Ebola a week after arriving in the country and had undergone a temperature screening before boarding his flight.

Duncan also said on an airport questionnaire that he had not been exposed to Ebola, though his neighbors in Liberia said he had helped a woman sick with the disease just days before his trip to the U.S.

CDC director Tom Frieden told reporters Wednesday that Duncan may have been flagged by airport health screeners if he answered questions in-person about his potential exposure. 

Symptoms of Ebola typically occur within two weeks of contact. The disease cannot be diagnosed — or spread — when a person does not present symptoms, making it difficult to pinpoint people who might have been exposed.

Frieden acknowledged that the new guidelines would create “some obvious and understandable concern at the airports.”

While individuals with fevers would be singled out during the screening process, they could also be experiencing an “extremely common” and treatable diseases like malaria. 

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) applauded the new measures, which he called  “another necessary line of defense against this epidemic.”

“When it comes to Ebola you can’t be too careful. As we saw in Dallas, all it takes is one case to discombobulate an entire city,” Schumer wrote in a statement.

Justin Sink contributed.

This story was updated at 1:16 p.m., 1:49 p.m. and 5:20 p.m.

Tags Chuck Schumer Ebola
See all Hill.TV See all Video