White House: Beefed-up Ebola screenings coming to five U.S. airports

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent
Passengers are screened as they arrive at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok August 22, 2014. Asian nations are using thermal imaging cameras and posting doctors at airports to screen out sick travellers as health authorities scramble to avert any outbreak of the Ebola virus that has killed more than 1,000 people in West Africa. (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Hours after the first Ebola patient diagnosed on U.S. soil died from the illness, the United States government announced tougher screenings of passengers arriving at five major American airports from the countries at the epicenter of the crisis.

“We don’t have a lot of margin for error,” President Barack Obama told state and local officials on a conference call to discuss the response to the historic outbreak in West Africa.

“If we don’t follow protocols and procedures that are put in place, then we’re putting folks in our communities at risk,” Obama said.

The new screenings will begin Saturday at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport. They will be implemented next week at Newark Liberty International Airport, Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., Chicago's O’Hare International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, officials said.

Those five American airports are the places of entry into the United States for 94 percent of U.S.-bound travelers from the countries hit hardest by the outbreak. The screenings are expected to cover about 150 passengers per day.

Travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will be taken to special screening areas at the airports. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials will observe them for symptoms and will ask them a series of questions about their potential exposure to Ebola. Medical staff will take the passengers’ temperature with thermometers that do not require physical contact.

If the travelers show symptoms or their answers raise concerns about possible exposure, an official from the Centers for Disease Control will examine them at a “quarantine station,” the CDC said. Other travelers will receive information about symptoms and be asked to provide detailed contact information.

The new measures come on top of exit screenings currently being performed on passengers looking to travel to the United States from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“These measures are really just belt-and-suspenders — it’s an added layer of protection on top of the procedures already in place at several airports,” Obama said.

On a conference call with reporters, CDC Director Tom Frieden said exit screenings of 36,000 people in the past two months had barred 74 passengers with fever, and three with other symptoms. None have since been diagnosed with Ebola, Frieden said.

But Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of the disease on Wednesday at a Dallas-area hospital, slipped through. Officials say he did not exhibit symptoms until days after arriving in the United States. It’s not clear whether the new questionnaire would have determined he was at risk.

“We can’t make the risk zero here. We wish we could,” Frieden said.

Ebola sufferers are only contagious when they exhibit symptoms of the disease, such as fever. But the incubation period between infection and symptoms can run as long as 21 days. Given the White House’s “confidence” in the existing screening process, it was unclear what would be gained from a medical standpoint from the new screenings.

The awkward point was evident when a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest: “So you’re completely confident in the measures there, but you’re adding more confidence here?”

“That’s right,” Earnest replied. “This is a multilayered screening approach, and what it demonstrates is our commitment to ensuring the safety of the traveling public and the safety of the American people right here at home.”

Given the profound public unease about the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the United States, the new measures could serve to contain American anxiety and tamp down support for an outright ban on travel to the United States from the afflicted countries — a step health professionals say would have the counterproductive effect of making it harder to get equipment, medicine and doctors to the frontlines.

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