Top health officials from Virginia and the District told regional leaders Wednesday that they have been working with local agencies since summer on protocols for dealing with a potential outbreak of Ebola in the Washington area and assured officials that the region is prepared.
David Trump, chief deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Health, and Joxel Garcia, director of the D.C. Department of Health, told members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that coordination efforts began in early August and intensified after the first case of Ebola in the United States was diagnosed in Texas.
“It’s new, it’s scary, it’s different,” Trump said, acknowledging fears that additional cases will be identified in the D.C. region, a major international travel gateway. “Ebola is a different virus, a different disease, but what we do to protect citizens is not different.”
Wednesday’s briefing came as personnel at Washington Dulles International Airport began preparations for stepped-up screening of travelers from West African nations. It also followed news that the first person to be diagnosed with the deadly virus in the United States, Thomas Eric Duncan, died Wednesday in Dallas, and as the White House moved to respond amid calls from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to take more aggressive steps to prevent the disease from spreading here.
Trump and Garcia emphasized that area health departments have invested heavily in monitoring systems that can identify and isolate at-risk patients and those who have been in contact with them. They noted that Washington-area officials are no strangers to such protocols having dealt with previous fears surrounding severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and swine flu (H1N1).
“This is not the first challenging disease we have encountered,” Trump said.
Both officials expressed confidence that should Ebola surface in the region, it will be quickly controlled.
“I am very confident that if we had a case in the District, in the region, we’d be able to stop it,” Garcia said.
Garcia and Trump’s appearance at the regular monthly meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ board of directors, was a last-minute addition to the group’s agenda and, many said, an acknowledgment by regional leaders that concern about Ebola continues to grow in the region and across the country.
Maryland health officials were unable to attend Wednesday’s briefing because they were in other Ebola briefings with White House and CDC officials, according to Christopher Garrett, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He said they have held multiple briefings with health officials throughout the state and believe they are prepared to handle any cases of Ebola.
Health officials here have already had experience screening for the Ebola virus. Last week, two possible cases were identified in the District and one in Montgomery County. All three patients tested negative for the virus. And Wednesday, officials acknowledged for the first time that two people in Virginia had been tested for the virus. Trump said tests on the individuals — one in central Virginia and one in the eastern region of the state — were negative.
Two laboratories in the region — Maryland’s Public Health Laboratory and the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services — are equipped to test for the Ebola virus. That number is expected to grow with other certified laboratories in the area set to receive test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Garcia said it takes roughly six hours to receive test results, which are then forwarded to the CDC for confirmation.
Meanwhile, CDC officials said they will begin adding staff to their office at Dulles and four of the busiest international airports in the United States, which will begin enhanced screening of passengers from affected countries.
Under the new procedures, travelers originating in three of the West African countries hardest hit by Ebola — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — will be subject to enhanced screening upon arrival at the U.S. airports, according to guidelines released Wednesday by the CDC.
Screenings will begin Saturday at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and are expected to begin next week at Dulles, O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport. Combined the five airports handle 94 percent of the passengers entering the United States from the countries most affected.
According to the White House and CDC, about 150 people travel each day from these West African countries to those five airports.
The international passengers will be screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. They will have their temperatures taken with a thermometer that does not require contact. In addition, they will fill out questionnaires and customs personnel will look for any signs of illness. Those selected for the enhanced screening at Dulles will be taken to airport terminal screening rooms established for that purpose several years ago, said Christopher Paolino, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
“They’re not meant as long-term holding facilities or isolation facilities,” Paolino said. “They’re intended as short-term facilities, while CDC would make a determination as to what to do with the individuals on a longer-term basis.”
He said the rooms are in the international terminal. Paolino said the MWAA also maintains similar isolation rooms at Reagan National Airport, although international flights don’t land there.
International travelers who do not require additional checking or quarantine will be asked to leave their contact information and to check their temperature daily.
While additional screening at major international airports offers some level of comfort, some local officials remain unsure if it will prevent more Ebola cases from turning up in the United States.
“Is it enough?” asked Falls Church Vice Mayor David Snyder. “I don’t know.”
Even the nation’s top health official acknowledged that there are no guarantees.
“We work to continuously increase the safety of Americans,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden said in a statement Wednesday. “We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute-zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.”
Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.