The White House said Tuesday that new measures for screening airline passengers for Ebola will be released in “the coming days.”
The new steps are being developed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after speaking with CDC Director Tom Frieden.
“He told me that they will announce this week that they will do tougher types of screening on U.S. soil,” Schumer said.
President Obama’s promise of stepped-up screening for Ebola at U.S. airports that handle international flights will fall on the shoulders of the Customs and Border Protection officers who greet passengers arriving from abroad.
Though they often seem preoccupied with scrutinizing passports and luggage, CBP officers are trained to detect signs of illness, and they routinely do just that, officials said.
“CBP personnel review all travelers entering the United States for general overt signs of illnesses,” the agency said in a statement.
In addition to visual observations, CBP officers question passengers about their health and are instructed to alert the CDC if a passenger appears to be seriously ill.
“When a traveler or alien is identified with a possible communicable disease, CBP personnel will take the appropriate safety measures by donning personal protective equipment,” the CBP said. “If they identify an individual believed to be infected, CBP will contact CDC along with local public health authorities to help with further medical evaluation.”
The passenger would be immediately isolated while the CDC and local authorities conduct the evaluation.
The early symptoms of Ebola resemble an extreme case of the flu — high fever, headache, aching joints, weakness, stomach pain and loss of appetite. The illness is spread by contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of a sick person.
It takes several days for the person who has contracted the virus to experience symptoms, feeding fears that an Ebola carrier could fly from one of the West African countries where the sickness is rampant.
The flight of a Liberian man from his home country to Dallas, passing through Brussels and Dulles International Airport, exacerbated those concerns. Thomas Eric Duncan fell ill with Ebola four days after he landed in Texas.
The route he took from Africa through Europe on his way to the United States stoked additional concerns. There are no direct flights by U.S. carriers from the three countries hit hardest by the outbreak — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — to the United States, and U.S. airlines offer just four direct flights from anywhere in West Africa.
As a result, most Africans bound for the United States arrive in places — including New York, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston — aboard flights from Europe. That reality makes calls for some form of flight ban from the affected nations problematic and suggests that the key to corralling the illness is intercepting infected people.
With the two federal agencies — CDC and CBP — taking the lead in intercepting potentially ill passengers, airports are insulated from the process.
“Following CDC guidelines is our strategy right now,” said Rob Yingling, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles and Reagan National airports. “We’re not doing anything outside of what the CDC is recommending.”
Federal law requires pilots to radio ahead if a passenger dies or falls ill with certain symptoms.
“If somebody comes in on a flight that has a fever or any one of those triggers, CDC can insert themselves at any point in the process,” Yingling said. “They can say [to the pilot], ‘Tell us more about this case,’ or they can actually physically go to the plane.”
The CDC maintains an office at Dulles and other major airports that handle international flights.
“It’s not unusual at all. If anybody has a medical condition, we’ll hear about it before the plane lands,” Yingling said.