Medical teams at New York’s JFK airport, armed with Ebola questionnaires and temperature guns, began screening travellers from three West African countries on Saturday as U.S. health authorities stepped up efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
John F. Kennedy Airport is the first of five U.S. airports to start enhanced screening of U.S.-bound travellers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where most of the outbreak’s more than 4,000 deaths have occurred.
Nearly all of the passengers travelling to the United States from those countries arrive at JFK, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta. The new procedures will begin at the other four airports on Thursday.
Buntouradu Bamgoura, 54, who was born in Guinea and lives in the United States, said she went through the new screening process after arriving from her homeland with a Paris stopover. “Yes, they did take my temperature,” she said when asked by a reporter. “It took, I think, 15 minutes.”
The screenings, which will affect only a tiny fraction of overall passengers arriving at JFK, are being conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP), under the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are no direct flights from the affected countries, so CBP staff identify passengers who have flown from there by looking at information about their trip and checking passports, R. Gil Kerlikowske, the CBP commissioner, told a news conference at JFK on Saturday morning.
Using infrared temperature guns, staff will check for elevated temperatures among passengers whose journeys began or included a stop in one of the three African countries.
As a temporary measure, the CBP has authorized U.S. Coast Guard personnel to take temperatures, but the CBP will contract “professional medical staff” in the future, Kerlikowske said.
Screeners will also assess passengers for signs of potential illness and ask them questions about their health and whether they may have come into contact with an Ebola patient.
For those with a fever or other symptoms or possible exposure to Ebola, the CDC will decide what steps to take next. Health authorities may decide to take a person to a hospital for evaluation, testing and treatment, or to quarantine or isolate the patient under federal law, according to the CDC.
Traveller Bamgoura said she was handed a list of guidelines for passengers who were screened and allowed to enter. The sheet offers tips for self-monitoring and instructions for doctors treating patients with Ebola-like symptoms.
JFK is the entry point for nearly half of the roughly 150 travellers who arrive daily in the United States from the three West African countries, and those passengers amount to about one-tenth of 1 percent of all international daily arrivals at the airport, the CDC said.
Dr. Jeffrey Griffiths, an infectious disease expert at Tufts University School of Medicine, said the screenings “will incrementally pick up some people” and are a valuable tool to raise awareness about early detection and treatment of the illness.
The CDC said the airport screening is just one aspect of an overall strategy to fight the spread of Ebola.
“No matter how many of these procedures are put into place, we can’t get the risk to zero,” said Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. “This new entry-screening procedure is just one part of a multi-layered approach,” he told the JFK news conference.
Even so, the screening has its critics.
Lawrence Gostin, who teaches global health law at Georgetown Law School, said such monitoring “had virtually no effectiveness” when used in Canada and Asia during the SARS outbreak in 2002.
In addition, travellers with a fever can evade detection by taking over-the-counter medication during the flight, he said.
People also could lie on questionnaires, said Dr. David Mabey, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “People may not fill them in very truthfully. They don’t want to be delayed for hours,” Mabey said.
Passengers are already screened when they depart from the three West African countries. In the two months since those screenings began, only 77 of the 36,000 screened travellers were denied boarding, the CDC said. Many of them were diagnosed later with malaria, and none with Ebola.
Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of Ebola in Dallas this week, was able to fly to the United States from Liberia because he didn’t have a fever when screened before he departed.
Duncan filled out a questionnaire saying he had not been in contact with anyone infected with Ebola. Liberian officials have said Duncan lied on the questionnaire and had been in contact with a pregnant woman who later died. However, a friend of his family has said Duncan did not know the woman had Ebola.
(Additional reporting and writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Frank McGurty and Frances Kerry)