CDC: Enhanced Ebola screening measures to be implemented at select U.S. airports

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(CNN – Oct. 8, 2014) — Five of America’s biggest, busiest airports will soon implement new steps to guard against Ebola, requiring travelers arriving from the hardest-hit West African nations to go through an additional layer of screening.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the enhanced Ebola-protection policy Wednesday, affecting those travelers coming into the United States from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — countries where the vast majority of current Ebola cases are.

According to the CDC, more than 94% of the travelers from those countries enter the United States through five airports: New York’s John F. Kennedy, Washington-Dulles outside the nation’s capital, Newark in northern New Jersey, O’Hare in Chicago and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson.

That’s why the additional screening will be focused there, starting Saturday at Kennedy airport, which the CDC says has been the landing spot for nearly half of all travelers from the three West African nations between July 2013 and July 2014. The program will be expanded to include the four other airports next week.

Customs and Border Protection — the agency charged with safeguarding U.S. borders and airports — will take the lead in the new effort. Its officers will escort travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to a separate area then ask them questions about their health and possible exposure to Ebola.

A non-contact thermometer, placed over their forehead, will be used to take the travelers’ temperature. A fever is one of the symptoms of Ebola.

If there are any red flags, such as the person has a high temperature or there’s something on health questionnaire that suggests they might have been exposed to the virus, the traveler will then be evaluated by a CDC public health officer on site.

If there are not, the person is free to leave — though not empty-handed. According to the CDC, they will be given information about how to monitor themselves for possible symptoms, will be asked to log their temperature daily and be asked to provide their contact information to authorities.

This new policy won’t just affect those who flew directly from West Africa to the United States. This is important because many arrive via connecting flights through airports in Europe and perhaps elsewhere, though this indirect travel doesn’t make them any less of a risk.

Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, explained Wednesday that “we have in our screening capabilities the ability to identify individuals traveling not only with respect to the last point of departure but the point of origin.”

“So … we can, in fact, identify the full journey of the individual arriving in the United States,” Mayorkas said.

Wednesday’s announcement comes the same day as the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.

Duncan traveled from Liberia, via Belgium, before arriving in Texas on September 20. It’s not likely if the stepped-up screening would have affected Duncan, who appeared not to show signs of the virus until a few days after his arrival.

The Ebola virus has infected more than 8,000 people, and killed at least 3,800, since the latest outbreak began earlier this year, according to the World Health Organization. Authorities have said the actual numbers are probably much higher, because many people may have died before authorities firmly identified Ebola as a cause, and others might be suffering with the disease without knowing it or reporting it to officials.

And in West Africa at least, things aren’t getting any better. According to a WHO update released Wednesday, “the situation in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone continues to deteriorate, with widespread and persistent transmission of (Ebola).”

This alarming trend — and the fact that there’s been at least one person to bring Ebola unknowingly into the United States — has spurred some calls to stop on all travel into the United States from West Africa so long as the virus is spreading.

For instance, Sen. Bill Nelson publicly urged Secretary of State John Kerry to suspend U.S. travel visas of those from the affected region for any “unnecessary travel” and not to issue new visas.

Yet the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader who has served as a spokesman for Duncan’s family, argued that such measures will hurt the economies of longtime American allies like Liberia.

“We should quarantine the disease, not quarantine nations and not quarantine airline flights,” the civil rights leader said. “We should not panic.”

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden also spoke against such a ban, arguing that it would create more problems than it solves.

“It makes it hard to get health workers in, because they can’t get out,” Frieden said. “If we make it harder to respond to the outbreak in West Africa, it will spread not only in those three countries (in West Africa hit hardest by Ebola) but to other parts of Africa and ultimately increase the risk here” in the United States.

The CDC leader added the new security measures should help prevent Ebola from getting in, but experts don’t guarantee anything.

First off, Frieden predicts there will be people tested who have a fever or who have been exposed to the virus, but don’t in fact have Ebola.

Part of this is because fever is also a symptom of malaria, a common ailment in Africa that spreads via mosquitoes, not person-by-person. That’s been the case at West Africa airports, where Frieden said “as far as we know” none of those found to have high fevers had Ebola.

The CDC director stressed that Ebola will remain a threat so long as there’s an outbreak in West Africa. A person may unknowingly have Ebola for up to 21 days before feeling sick. And more than any time in history, people can travel most everywhere, at anytime.

“Whatever we do,” Frieden said, “we can’t get the risk to zero here in the interconnected world that we live in today.”

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