As the novel coronavirus’s death toll and confirmed cases continue to rise, U.S. officials have expanded screening measures to 20 airports nationwide. So what exactly should passengers traveling from China — and the general flying public — expect at these enhanced-screening airports?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially began screening at five U.S. airports for the potentially fatal virus that originated in Wuhan, China: New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and San Francisco International Airport.
This week, health officials stepped up screening efforts to include 20 U.S. airports. The airports correspond to the CDC’s quarantine stations situated at 20 ports of entry across the country, USA Today reported. They receive about 90% of passengers from China, Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday.
|Cities where airports are screening travelers from China for coronavirus|
|San Juan, Puerto Rico|
Still, CDC director Robert Redfield said in a news conference Tuesday that there was currently “no spread of this virus in our communities here at home.” There were five confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. as of Thursday.
“The coming days and weeks are likely to bring more confirmed cases here and around the world, including the possibility of some person-to-person spread,” he said. “But our goal of the ongoing U.S. public-health response is to contain this outbreak and prevent sustained spread of the virus in our country.”
The CDC works to identify sick people and educate travelers about the virus
The CDC and Customs and Border Protection’s “enhanced health screenings” are designed to spot travelers from China who are entering the U.S. with cough, fever or shortness of breath. These travelers are asked to complete a questionnaire on their symptoms, travel and contact information, the CDC says.
The agency’s staff also observes travelers for signs of shortness of breath or coughing, and uses a handheld non-contact thermometer to detect fever. Travelers identified as sick receive an additional layer of screening, during which a CDC official decides whether they should be brought to a local hospital for further evaluation and care.
Those who don’t display coronavirus symptoms during the screening receive CDC-issued information cards urging them to be watchful for potential symptoms for 14 days after leaving China. The cards advise that travelers seek immediate medical attention if they experience coronavirus symptoms, but that they call ahead before heading to a doctor’s office or emergency room.
The enhanced screenings build upon the quarantine stations’ regular day-to-day activities, which focus on identifying ill patients, said Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at Tuesday’s news conference.
“That’s what we’re going to be doing here: identifying ill travelers returning from China so that we can make sure that they’re appropriately treated; so that they don’t pass on this illness to others,” she said.
The screenings are also an important opportunity for CDC personnel to educate returning travelers about the virus’s signs and symptoms, she added. “We want travelers to understand that even if they don’t have symptoms when they come back to the United States, if they develop symptoms, they should contact their health-care provider immediately.”
‘This is dynamic; it’s fluid’
The new coronavirus was first detected in China’s Wuhan City, a manufacturing and transportation hub, and was later confirmed to have spread to several other countries. The virus was responsible for at least 132 deaths and 5,974 confirmed infection cases as of Wednesday, Chinese officials said. Confirmed cases outside of China total 68, according to a Wednesday update from the World Health Organization, at least five of which are in the U.S.
The State Department urged U.S. travelers to “reconsider travel to China” in a travel advisory Monday, and the CDC advised travelers to avoid all nonessential travel to China. China had already imposed a travel ban spanning air travel, railways and public transport on Wuhan and many surrounding cities.
Travelers coming from China should budget extra time at U.S. airports after landing, said Robert Quigley, the senior vice president and regional medical director of International SOS, a medical and travel security firm. “All of this takes time,” he told MarketWatch. “We suggest to everybody that they have flexible itineraries [and] don’t schedule meetings for the moment they get off the airplane.”
In general, he added, travelers navigating the airport should be sure to wash their hands, avoid putting their hands in their mouths, avoid people who are coughing, and cover their own mouths when they cough. “We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, or the day after,” Quigley said. “This is dynamic; it’s fluid.”
The CDC did not immediately respond to questions seeking further details on the airport screenings. A CBP spokesman directed MarketWatch to video of actors demonstrating the screening process on the CDC’s website.
Airports see ‘virtually no operational impact’
The screening process has had no real impact on day-to-day conditions, such as foot traffic and lines, at the five original airports to implement coronavirus screenings, representatives for those airports told MarketWatch.
“The screenings are being handled in a secure room inside the U.S. Customs area of Terminal 4. They have no impact on any other JFK passengers or foot traffic,” said Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates John F. Kennedy International Airport. “The only people impacted are those coming off flights and being screened.”
Screenings at San Francisco International Airport are happening inside that airport’s customs facility “in a separate area from other international arriving passengers,” said spokesman Doug Yakel, and only international arriving passengers who have been to Wuhan are subject to the process. “This process is not impacting any other airport operations,” he said.
At LAX, passengers who are identified for screening are screened before they reach any customs lines, said Heath Montgomery, a spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX. “There is no impact on lines or foot traffic,” he said. Asked whether people flying out of LAX should show up extra early for their flights, Montgomery replied, “Not due to the CDC screening process.”
“We always encourage our guests to show up early at LAX, given that we are in the midst of a multibillion dollar modernization program,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation echoed the others’ sentiments, telling MarketWatch there was “not any impact to operations at O’Hare International Airport” from the CDC’s enhanced screening.
Elise Durham, a spokeswoman for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said the airport had no direct flights to Wuhan, and had only three flights that went to Asia (Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai). “Since officials in Wuhan have shut down the city, including all modes of transportation, we are not expecting to have many passengers who connected near the affected area,” she said.
The airport has experienced “virtually no operational impact” from the screenings, Durham added.