Ebola Screening at U.S. Airports Under Consideration

The Obama administration and airlines are considering additional screening for Ebola symptoms in airline passengers traveling from West Africa to the U.S.

In advance of a meeting between U.S. health officials and airline representatives today, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said President Barack Obama’s administration is discussing adding the additional screening at U.S. airports to the exit screenings to passengers in the West African nations stricken by the disease.

“We’re looking at all options to protect Americans because that’s our No. 1 priority,” Frieden told the CNN television network. The Obama administration today continued to dismiss calls for a travel ban on the three hardest-hit nations, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

After a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, arrived in Dallas and became the first confirmed Ebola case in the U.S., lawmakers have urged more aggressive action by U.S. border agents. Some called for a ban on any passengers from those nations, while Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said Frieden should have agents specifically check travelers for Ebola symptoms.

At this point, incoming travelers from West Africa get fact sheets about the disease, but aren’t specifically tested for a fever or asked if they had contact with someone who had the disease. Duncan was asymptomatic while traveling. The New York Times reported that while he was in Africa he helped a neighbor, who later died, get to the hospital in a taxi.

40,000 Passengers

U.S. health and safety officials will meet with airline industry officials today about “whether there should be any additional screening anywhere in the world that could improve already in place protections against spread of this disease,” Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a Washington-based industry trade group, said in an e-mail.

The U.S. has had more than 40,000 visitors from West Africa in the past six months, according to Frieden. Most connect to the U.S. through European airports. U.S. officials have also helped each of the three nations with Ebola outbreaks set up screening programs at their airports to identify passengers with fevers or other symptoms.

“The most effective way to go about controlling this is to prevent those individuals from getting on a plane in the first place,” said Lisa Monaco, the White House homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser, said on Oct. 3. “Since these measures have been in place, dozens and dozens of people have been stopped from getting on flights in the region.”

Fuel Outbreak

Frieden warned that cutting off travel for passengers from West Africa might fuel the outbreak and raise the possibility it spreads to other nations because it would make it harder to get aid into the countries.

“A travel ban is not something that we’re currently considering,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said today. “We continue to assess if additional steps would be useful in enhancing the safety of either the traveling public or the American public here at home.”

Airline crews are getting guidelines and training about the disease, and how to spot and handle someone who may have symptoms, he said.

Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said, “I don’t see the need to do anything differently.”

While Southwest doesn’t fly beyond the Caribbean and Mexico, it could pick up international passengers who fly into several U.S. gateways for flights across the country.

FAA Standards

The Dallas-based carrier hasn’t taken any new steps beyond “over-communicating” facts about Ebola to its employees, Kelly said after remarks at a Dallas meeting today.

“Everyone has their plans, everyone has their cleaning programs,” he said. There are Federal Aviation Administration “standards for all of these things. It feels like its very routine. If the protocols change, we’ll have to react to that, but right now it’s business as usual.”

In Dallas, Duncan is now in critical condition at a hospital and people who came into contact with him are being monitored for symptoms. Frieden said that this example shows that while there may be isolated cases of the disease in the U.S., “I remain quite confident we will not have a widespread outbreak.”

“We will stop it in its tracks because we’ve got infection control in hospitals, and public health that tracks and isolates people if they get symptoms,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday. “But we have to recognize that, try as we might, until the outbreak is controlled in Africa, we can’t get the risk here to zero.”

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