Ebola screenings begin at JFK; four more airports start next week

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A passenger plane

CNN – Health screenings to help prevent the spread of Ebola began Saturday for some travelers to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport but an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that nothing can “get the risk to zero.”

Four other airports will add the screenings Thursday, according to the CDC.

This won’t be a mass event, with long lines of travelers waiting for screening. Only about 150 travelers a day will receive the screenings, CDC officials said.

“No matter how many of these procedures are put into place, we can’t get the risk to zero,” Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told reporters Saturday.

“That will not be the case but this additional layer should add a measure of security to the American public. This entry screening procedure, for example, would not necessarily have caught the patient in Dallas.”

Cetron was referring to the only case of Ebola so far diagnosed on U.S. soil — that of Thomas Eric Duncan, who didn’t have symptoms at the time he arrived in the United States.

Under the program, passengers originating from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone will be subject to the additional screening.

Coast Guard corpsmen and eventually medical workers under contract will take the passengers’ temperature and Customs and Border Protection staffers will ask questions about their health and possible exposure to Ebola.

Those suspected of possible Ebola exposure will be referred to a CDC public health officer for additional screening.

After the initial run Saturday at JFK, the testing will expand Thursday to Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

The five airports, JFK included, receive 94% of air travelers who come from the afflicted countries, according to the CDC.

“The expanded screening measures provide this layer of protection to the already established protocols to minimize the risk of another case of Ebola here in the United States,” said R. Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Kerlikowske said travelers with fever or other symptoms or who may have been exposed to Ebola will be referred to the CDC to determine whether they can travel or should be taken to a hospital. In addition, Border Patrol agents will monitor travelers for signs of illness.

Cetron said all travelers leaving the affected countries are already being screened with questionnaires about possible exposure and symptoms and having their temperatures checked.

“More than 36,000 passengers have been screened with this tool the last two months and not a single Ebola case has been detected,” he said.

Will it help?

Some critics of the U.S. approach say the screenings won’t do much from a public health perspective.

“I think they offer some margin of, I don’t know, peace of mind for the public,” said Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Coming Plague.”

But she stressed the screenings would not have detected Duncan’s case.

“So I see this more as something to calm the nerves of the American people, the British people, the French people,” she said.

Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the effort isn’t “entirely window dressing, because we have to do something.”

“But,” she said, “there’s much more that has to be done to keep people safe.”

She says she worries about planes carrying ill passengers who may not be detected until after they get off the flight. By then, the plane may have already been prepared for another flight.

Health officials have warned the screenings will likely catch some people with fevers, but not Ebola, and could miss some with Ebola as symptoms can take up to 21 days to appear.

“No exit or entry screening will supplant the need for state and local health departments, for clinicians and for individuals to be aware and to think Ebola,” Cetron said.

Outbreak in Africa.

At least 8,399 people are believed to have contracted the disease as of October 7, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, 4,033 have died, the agency said.

Among health care workers fighting the outbreak, 416 are believed to have caught the disease and 233 have died, according to WHO.

The numbers were reported from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Spain and the United States.

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