Travelers raise alarm over coronavirus screening at US airports

Travelers raise alarm over coronavirus screening at US airports
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Americans who have recently returned to the U.S. say they have received little or inconsistent guidance from airport and government officials about self-quarantining and social distancing, raising concerns about coronavirus screening practices at transport hubs.

The experiences described by travelers, coupled with the federal policies in place, put the U.S. at odds with many of the precautions other countries are taking to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Health officials who have been setting guidelines for Americans in the U.S. say there are still risks of more cases being brought into the country.

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“I know we’re going to be successful in putting this under control,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said on Wednesday. “But I think we’re going to have to remember is that we don’t want to import cases in.”

Travelers who spoke with The Hill said that their return to the U.S. raised concerns about how the threat of coronavirus spread is being handled at American airports, where people can be in close quarters for extended periods of time.

Americans returning from Peru — after being under strict quarantine since March 16 — described how everyone at the Peruvian airport, including staff and travelers, was wearing masks, making the arrival in the U.S. all the more surprising.

“We went through immigration services [in the U.S.], the guy who processed us wasn’t wearing a mask, but we were,” Tina Kuo, who returned from Peru through Miami International Airport, told The Hill.

Peru had fewer than 100 cases when it closed its borders on March 16 and increased to at least 480 cases over the course of a week, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Americans returning from Guatemala, which has only a couple dozen cases, said airport attendants were methodically scanning travelers with infrared thermometers.

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Tom Wojcik, who was part of a U.S.-chartered evacuation flight out of Guatemala, said he had his temperature checked at the airport by a Guatemalan attendant and handed a slip of paper with the degrees.

“Nothing was done with the papers” after arriving in the U.S., he wrote in an email. “It remains in my wallet. No one in Miami customs ever inquired about the status of our health, we were whisked through and sent to our respective destinations.”

He said he decided to self-quarantine for 14 days as a precaution.

Mary Fears, who also returned to the U.S. from Guatemala, said her impression of airport operations was that there was no pandemic in the U.S. But she did praise a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent for spacing out passengers in a waiting line to encourage social distancing at one point during her journey.

“It kills me to think about the number of cases and spread that could have been prevented with more precautions — especially as everyone races back to the US,” she wrote in an email to The Hill.

Her experience was echoed by dozens of other Americans who have returned to the U.S. in the past week.

The coronavirus has now been recorded in at least 175 countries, according to Johns Hopkins.

The State Department urges Americans to return from abroad as countries around the world close their borders.

The U.S. has banned foreign travelers from China, Iran, Ireland, the United Kingdom and 26 other European countries. Americans returning from those locations are subject to “enhanced health screenings.”

The State Department says that Americans returning from overseas are being screened for signs of coronavirus and advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“Any American returning from overseas will be subject to the screening that has been put in place at CDC recommendation, enacted by CBP and TSA at the airports,” a senior State Department official said in a briefing with reporters on March 24, calling the measures “very effective.”

“They’ll be given the same recommendations that any other American citizen is coming to — or any flight coming to the U.S. regarding recommendation for 14 days of self-observation, self-isolation,” the official said.

That stands in contrast with countries like Israel, which since March 9 has implemented a strict rule on anyone entering the country, requiring citizens and foreigners alike to submit to a two-week home quarantine.

A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said travelers entering the U.S. are referred for enhanced screening with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel if they are exhibiting coronavirus symptoms or are arriving from countries under the coronavirus travel ban or identified as “high-risk.”

“CBP officers continue to identify and refer travelers subject to the presidential proclamations or who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 to the CDC or DHS contract medical personnel for enhanced health screening,” the spokesperson said.

“Specific procedures may vary by location based on operational needs, the flow of passengers, and whether health screening occurs before travelers reach CBP primary inspection.”

Coronavirus carriers who are asymptomatic are at a low risk for passing the virus on to others, according to the World Health Organization.

The main symptoms are a fever, cough and shortness of breath, and any one of those could signal a high enough level of the virus that increases risk of transmission.

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Jason Farley, an infectious disease–trained nurse epidemiologist in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University Schools of Nursing and Medicine, said the growing number of cases around the world makes specific guidance against select countries likely obsolete.

“We know that there’s spread going around the world and choosing a select number of countries at this point is becoming less of a public health intervention,” he said.

Instead, Farley said, promoting precautionary measures should be a focus, like promoting hand sanitizer and distributing paper masks for passengers transiting through airports to lessen the likelihood of viral spread through someone coughing or sneezing, similar to the precautions taken in Peru.

“We know with other bacteria and viruses that putting a patient in a paper mask reduces the likelihood that they release those droplets that carry the virus,” he said. “Put everyone in that mask [at the airport] regardless of symptoms. That would help.”