Public health officials say Ebola is extremely unlikely to spread in the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on the lookout for international travelers who might be carrying the deadly virus.

The agency operates a network of 20 quarantine stations where health officers can “decide whether ill persons can enter the United States and what measures should be taken to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.”


The locations of all 20 U.S. quarantine stations. (Courtesy of CDC)

On Sunday, one of those stations sprang to action after a passenger began vomiting on board an international flight headed from Brussels to New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport, according to a CNN report.

Most of the 255 passengers on the flight were released to go through customs after about an hour and 35 minutes. The sick traveler was allowed to leave after the New Jersey Department of Health, in coordination with federal officials, determined that his condition was “consistent with another, minor treatable condition unrelated to Ebola.”

The CDC has the authority to deny entry to the United States for ill people if they have one of nine types of “quarantinable diseases,” as defined by executive order. The agency can also admit patients to specialized hospitals for treatment.

The list of quarantinable diseases, which was last updated by President Obama in July, includes cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral hemorrhagic fevers, severe acute respiratory syndromes and new types of flu that could cause a pandemic. Ebola counts as a viral hemorrhagic fever.

CDC quarantine centers are staffed by personnel who assess the health of travelers on board landed aircraft when passengers become ill. Sick individuals can be moved to isolation rooms at the quarantine facilities, or the agency can send them for care at hospitals.

To be clear, the CDC considers a “quarantine” to be different from “isolation.” Quarantines apply to individuals who have been exposed to diseases but feel well and need monitoring, while isolation applies to those who are actually ill.

Concerns about a potential U.S. Ebola outbreak have grown in recent days, with two patients who contracted the virus in Liberia being held at hospitals in Dallas and Omaha.

Public health officials are monitoring as many as 49 people who may have had contact with the Dallas patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, according to a Washington Post report. He spent days in the United States visiting with family and friends before showing signs of the disease, at which point patients are considered to be contagious through contact with bodily fluids.