Five major American airports are set to begin stricter screening procedures to detect arriving West African travelers who may be infected with the Ebola virus, according to federal transportation and security officials.
Border personnel at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, which receives nearly half the country's incoming travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — the nations hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic — will start questioning and checking temperatures for those passengers starting Saturday.
Similar measures at Washington Dulles International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were expected to be implemented next week.
Federal officials said the five airports received more than 94% of the incoming passengers from the three countries.
Under the new protocols, travelers from West Africa also will be asked to monitor themselves after leaving the airport and to complete a daily body temperature log to check for fever.
"We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa," Thomas Frieden, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement.
Wednesday’s announcement came the same day that a Liberian visitor, Thomas Eric Duncan, 42, died from Ebola after several days of intensive care treatment in isolation at a Dallas hospital.
Duncan had flown from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where he passed an Ebola airport screening and fever check, to Brussels, then to Dulles and Dallas. He had shown no symptoms — and was thus not thought to be infectious — until days after he arrived in Dallas.
“Taking temperatures and learning more about passengers coming here from West Africa will provide another necessary line of defense against this epidemic,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “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.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the ranking member of the Senate appropriations health subcommittee who had called for stricter screening measures, said he was pleased by the new measures but noted that with Ebola’s 21-day incubation period, “entry screenings are not the full solution.”
Some experts have been skeptical about screening arriving passengers, saying such measures are not likely to catch cases that hadn’t already been caught by West African officials, given Ebola’s incubation period.
Also, travelers can give misinformation in interviews in the U.S. just as they can in Africa, said Dr. Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology at UC Berkeley.
Seventy-seven out of 36,000 air passengers screened in West Africa over the last two months have been denied boarding for showing feverish symptoms, but none of them ultimately had Ebola, according to the CDC.