Though they often seem preoccupied with scrutinizing passports and luggage, customs 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. If a person is thought to have “a possible communicable disease,” they are isolated while the CDC and local authorities conduct the evaluation.
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,” said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which runs Dulles and Reagan National airports. “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.
Meanwhile, up to 4,000 service members are expected to head to West African countries ravaged by the Ebola epidemic. They will be monitored several times a day, and, if any of them contract Ebola, they will be loaded onto a specially designed plane and flown back to the United States for treatment.
Among the tasks laid out for the military is the construction of 17 treatment centers for people with the disease. This will take until the middle of next month, according to Gen. David Rodriguez, chief of U.S. Africa Command.
Ashley Halsey III and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.