As the passengers who arrived from Ethiopia passed from the screening area at Dulles International Airport on Thursday, a flock of friends and relatives waited to welcome them with cameras poised.
It appeared to be business as usual at Dulles, but behind the scenes federal officials promised that extra precautions against the potential spread of the Ebola virus were underway.
“They are doing the right thing,” said Peter Odhiambo, a native of Kenya who lives in Takoma Park, Md., as he waited for his friend’s mother to arrive from Kenya. “The worst thing that can happen is for someone with the virus to enter through here. We don’t know who people have come in contact with while traveling.”
Addis Ababa, where the passengers boarded an Ethiopian Airlines plane, is more than 3,000 miles from the three West African nations hit hardest by Ebola, farther than the distance between Washington and Mexico City.
There was no confirmation that anyone received the enhanced screening at Dulles on Thursday. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, which bears responsibility for the process, said it would not release information, and passengers emerging from routine passport and luggage checks said they saw no evidence of it.
The enhanced screening that was expected to begin Thursday at Dulles and three other international gateway airports — Chicago’s O’Hare International, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International and Newark Liberty International — is intended to single out travelers from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa.
By the time the plane wheels thud against the runway at Dulles, passengers from the three nations should have been through the process twice already. According to guidelines, they should have been quizzed and scrutinized for symptoms when they began their journey in one of those three nations. It should have happened a second time when they boarded flights for the United States in London, Brussels, Paris or Naples.
During the flight across the Atlantic, flight attendants alerted to the fact a passenger was coming from West Africa watched for any sign of illness, mindful of their obligation to radio ahead to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if anyone showed symptoms.
Jacqueline Tagne, 41, and her four children flew into Dulles on the Ethiopian Airlines flight after departing their native Cameroon, in Central Africa. Before they boarded the flight in Addis Ababa, airport officials took their temperatures and screened them for Ebola-like symptoms.
When they arrived at Dulles, she said, they moved quickly through customs. No special screening. No temperature checks. No people in hazmat suits.
“There was nothing special,” she said.
Bienvenu Mouofo, who was there to welcome his sister-in-law and her four children, said he was surprised his relatives did not go through the extra screening process. But he said he hoped the stepped-up screening could help prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
“This is great. The health-care system needs to do what it can to prevent the disease,” he said. “But the best way to fight the virus is by helping to stop it in Africa.”
Under the enhanced screening guidelines, travelers from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are singled out by officers from CBP for examination and asked to fill out an Ebola-specific questionnaire. They will have their temperatures taken — fever is a symptom of the virus — and be taken to an isolation room if the temperature is higher than 100.4 degrees.
Passengers whose travel began in other nations, including those in Africa, are not required to go through the process unless they show obvious signs of illness.
Dinah Manu, of Woodbridge, Va., was awaiting visitors from Ghana, a nation hundreds of miles east of Liberia. Though she believed air travel between the two countries had ceased, she worried.
“You never know who they will seat next to you,” Manu said. “It’s scary. In many places people don’t shake hands anymore. They don’t hug anymore. People are afraid.”
One of those fearful people was Twilette Marshall, 44, who arrived at Dulles from Ohio wearing a surgical mask.
“I just don’t know exactly how serious it is. I just want to take precautions,” she said Thursday. “I just don’t want to take the chance. Who is to say that they have not been around someone who has it?”
Fear of Ebola has two-thirds of the people surveyed in a Washington Post-ABC News poll favoring travel restrictions on people from the three West African countries hit hardest by the virus. And 91 percent said they wanted stricter screening upon arrival in the United States.
Though there are no direct U.S. flights from the three Ebola-stricken countries, about 150 people who fly from them arrive in the United States each day, the CDC estimates. An average of about 30 of them are among the 9,900 international passengers who arrive at Dulles. There was no confirmation of how many arrived there Thursday.
Though responsibility for the airport screening falls to the CBP, with support from the CDC, officials who manage Dulles Airport said they were working with the two federal agencies to coordinate the effort.
Dulles Airport Manager Chris Browne said that airport officials along with their partner agencies held a four-hour walk-through of how the enhanced screening process would unfold. Browne said they also consulted with their counterparts at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where screenings began last weekend.
He said airport officials have installed additional hand-sanitizing stations around the terminals and issued gloves to personnel — including mobile lounge drivers and airport ambassadors — who might come in contact with passengers arriving from the impacted countries. But Browne was careful to note that the majority of airport workers were unlikely to have any contact with passengers arriving from those countries.
“Communicable disease detection and response is nothing new at Dulles,” Browne said. “We regularly train and drill with our federal, state and local partners, who would lead the response to a potential incident. We will continue to work closely with our partners to support their efforts and ensure that airports authority personnel are ready to respond if necessary.”
Meanwhile, three Virginia Republican lawmakers urged Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to use executive power to block anyone coming from an Ebola-impacted country from entering the state —notably through Dulles.
In a letter to the governor, state Dels. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) and Mark J. Berg (R-Frederick) and state Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) said McAuliffe should consider suing Dulles or the federal government to ensure that anyone in the state suspected of having Ebola is quarantined.
“He has confidence in the professional responders and the plan Virginia has should we have a positive confirmation of one of these cases,” said the governor’s spokesman, Brian Coy.
Any passenger who arrives at Dulles or one of the other gateway airports exhibiting symptoms that could be Ebola will be moved immediately to an isolation room staffed by CDC personnel. If the staff members believe it is warranted, the person could be taken to a hospital for additional testing.
Reston Hospital Center, about six miles from Dulles, is prepared to handle Ebola patients. Chief Medical Officer Walter Zolkiwsky said the hospital’s preparations were guided by CDC and World Health Organization recommendations.
“Standard precautions advised by the CDC would be employed in the course of treating a person infected with Ebola,” Zolkiwsky said. “We have specific practices in place to help identify and manage potential cases.”
Passengers from any one of the three countries who do not show symptoms will be taken to a separate inspection area.
The passengers will be instructed to complete a medical questionnaire that asks whether they have been in contact with Ebola victims. They then will be taken by a medical professional to an enclosed area where their temperature will be taken with a
handle-grip, non-contact thermometer. If they show no symptoms, they will be sent on their way — but not before leaving their contact information for possible follow-up.
Lori Aratani contributed to this report.