Hundreds of travelers arriving from West Africa will have their temperatures checked at five U.S. airports as the federal government ramps up efforts to calm Americans and keep the Ebola virus at bay.
The announcement came Wednesday, a few hours after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas, the first Ebola victim diagnosed in the U.S.
The new screenings will begin Saturday at New York’s Kennedy Airport and will expand to Washington Dulles and the international airports in Atlanta, Chicago and Newark, N.J., federal officials said at a news conference.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the initiative will provide added protection for a jittery nation hoping to keep the worst Ebola epidemic in history from spreading to the U.S. But he warned that screening isn’t the ultimate answer.
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“Until this outbreak is over in West Africa, whatever we do cannot get the risk to zero here in the interconnected world we live in today,” he said.
A fever check is unlikely to have flagged Duncan, who wasn’t showing symptoms when he arrived in the U.S.
A delay in diagnosing and treating him and the infection of a nurse who treated an Ebola patient in Spain have raised worries about Western nations’ ability to stop the disease, which has killed at least 3,800 people in West Africa.
In a teleconference with mayors and local officials, President Barack Obama urged vigilance.
“As we saw in Dallas, we don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Obama said. “If we don’t follow protocols and procedures that are put in place, then we’re putting folks in our communities at risk.”
Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, said still more security, such as expanding to more airports or performing more checks, could be added.
“We will continue to assess the risk and take additional measures, if necessary, to protect the American people,” he said.
Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry trade group, called the new measures “thoughtful and measured” and praised the government for resisting “the temptation for Draconian overreaction.”
“I personally thanked administration officials for resisting calls for an outright travel ban, which experts have uniformly called a harmful and counterproductive idea,” Dow said in a statement.
In a media briefing at the State Department with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the call for more assistance and continued travel to West Africa.
“I’m here this morning to make an urgent plea to countries in the world to step up even further,” Kerry said. “While we are making progress, we are not where … we need to be.”
Hammond agreed, calling Ebola an “unprecedented threat that knows no borders.”
“We all have to do more if we are going to prevent what is currently a crisis from becoming a catastrophe,” Hammond said.
The five airports receive more than 94 percent of travelers from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the West African nations where the Ebola outbreak is concentrated.
An estimated 150 people a day will be checked using high-tech thermometers that don’t touch the skin. The White House said the checks will reach more than 9 in 10 travelers from those countries.
Kennedy Airport received nearly half of U.S.-bound travelers from those three countries in the year that ended in July.
Screenings at the other airports will begin next week, officials at the news conference said.
The CDC is sending extra personnel to all five airports to help with the screening, which starts with Customs and Border Protection officers reviewing passports.
Travelers from the three nations will be taken to a special area, observed for signs of illness, and asked a series of questions about their health and possible exposure to Ebola.
Medical personnel will take their temperature, and those who have a fever or other symptoms or who have indicated possible exposure will be evaluated by a CDC quarantine officer, who will take their temperature again and assess their condition.
Those requiring further evaluation or monitoring will be referred to a public health agency.
Travelers from the three nations who have no symptoms and no history of exposure will be given information about self-monitoring and will be asked to keep a daily log of their temperature. They will also be asked to provide contact information.
All outbound airline passengers from the affected West African countries are already screened for Ebola symptoms with help from the CDC.
Of the estimated 36,000 people screened in Africa the last two months, only 77 were kept off flights because of illness. While many of the 77 had malaria, a common disease in West Africa, none were infected with Ebola.
Health workers are especially vulnerable to Ebola, which isn’t airborne like the flu but is spread by contact with the bodily fluids of infected people.
This report includes material from The Associated Press and Tony Pugh and Lesley Clark of the Star-Telegram Washington Bureau.