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John F. Kennedy International Airport yesterday began added screening for arriving passengers to help stem the spread of Ebola, the virus that’s killed more than 4,000 people this year in three African nations.
While all international passengers will be sent through Customs and Border Protection’s primary inspection booth at the New York airport, inspectors will use special procedures for people listed on airlines’ manifests as having traveled from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea.
Anyone showing symptoms of the disease will be sent immediately to a Centers for Disease Control quarantine center inside the airport, Steve Sapp, a Customs spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Others from the at-risk regions will be sent for a secondary examination to take their temperature, complete a health questionnaire and provide contact information. Travelers will be given health pamphlets with information on Ebola symptoms and contacts for medical professionals, according to a fact sheet from the CDC and Department of Homeland Security.
Anyone with a temperature over 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit (38.6 degrees Celsius) will be taken to the quarantine center, Sapp said.
“Our hope is that the screening will improve vigilance and increase awareness about the Ebola disease for those individuals traveling from the affected areas,” said Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman.
Of the 275,000 daily airport customers, about 150 — or less than 0.1 percent — come to the U.S. from at-risk regions in Africa. About half the people who came to the U.S. from those three countries in the 12 months ending July 2014 arrived through JFK, according to Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC.
Ninety-four percent of passengers from the affected region to the U.S. fly through Kennedy and Washington Dulles, Newark Liberty, Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta Hartsfield airports. Those other four airports will get the enhanced entry screenings next week.
The new airport checks are starting three days after the first U.S. death caused by Ebola. The patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, arrived from Liberia on Sept. 20 and didn’t begin showing signs of the disease until Sept. 24.
The U.S. screening is on top of measures being taken by the three African nations, which require travelers to complete a health questionnaire, be visually assessed and have their temperature taken before leaving the region.
In the last two months since exit checks began in the three countries, 36,000 people have been screened and 77 were denied boarding because of health concerns, according to a statement from the CDC. None of the passengers had Ebola.
Airlines have long been required to submit passenger and cargo manifests to Customs by the “time they are ’wheels up’ on foreign soil and destined to the U.S.,” Sapp said.
“CBP is using that practice to identify travelers who are arriving from Ebola-affected countries before they arrive,” he said.
David Borer, general counsel at the American Federation of Government Employees union, said he’s more positive about the screening now, after the union’s president on Oct. 9 raised concerns that transportation security officers and border patrol agents may not get sufficient protection from Ebola.
In the event that someone does have Ebola, they will be intercepted before they reach the Transportation Security Administration officials the union represents, he said in a phone interview.
“As the situation evolves, the response will evolve and we’re going to stay on top of that,” said Borer.
AFGE is the largest federal employee union, representing 670,000 workers in the federal government and the District of Columbia.
Some health experts question whether the new security measures will provide a significant defense against Ebola, which normally remains dormant for seven to 10 days after exposure.
“If the goal is 100 percent effectiveness in terms of keeping Ebola patients out of the country, this won’t work,” Anish Jha, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said in an interview. He said the screening is a “step in the right direction but it’s hardly foolproof.”
Others said innocent people may be swept up in the panic surrounding the infection.
“There will still be many false positives,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University in Washington. “Most patients with a fever will have influenza, malaria, tuberculosis or another disease.”
–With assistance from Mark Drajem and Alan Levin in Washington.
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