Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced on Tuesday that travellers from countries most impacted by Ebola (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) will only be able to enter the United States at five designated US airports that provide additional Ebola screening and treatment facilities. Effective yesterday, identified travellers will only be able to enter the USA through the international airport at Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Newark and Washington D.C. See the full DHS Press Release here.
How will the US authorities implement the new requirements?
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the agency will "exercise its authority" to require passengers whose flights originate in one of the three countries to enter the USA through one of the five approved airports. This means that the airlines will route specified travellers as required.
What do the enhanced screenings consist of?
While all international travellers are visually inspected for overt signs of Ebola at US entry points, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has put in place enhanced Ebola screenings at the five airports. The screenings consist of:
- Identifying individuals from Ebola-affected countries;
- Isolating such individuals while they complete a questionnaire.
- Medical professionals also check individuals' temperature and make a determination whether they can continue their travels, whether additional medical screenings are required, or whether a person must be taken to a medical facility for further monitoring or treatment.
Who is subject to enhanced screenings?
The following individuals have been identified by CBP as requiring additional screenings:
- Travellers who have been identified by CBP in advance as requiring additional screenings (for instance, those whose flights originated in the three countries) will be automatically referred;
- Travellers who CBP identifies during the admission process as having recently travelled to one of the three countries will be referred for additional screenings;
- Travellers who answer 'yes' to any of the Center for Disease Control (CDC)screening questionnaire items (for instance, having come into contact with a person with possible Ebola symptoms) will be referred for a public health assessment.
In a White House Press Release, President Obama expressed concern about the high stakes involved in appropriately identifying Ebola cases. He stated, "[a]s we saw in Dallas, we don't have a lot of margin for error. If we don't follow protocols and procedures that are put in place, then we're putting folks in our communities at risk."
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) strongly advises individuals to avoid all but essential travel to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Nonetheless, health experts question the effectiveness of newly instituted measures, pointing out that it is unlikely that the enhanced screenings would have identified Ebola symptoms in Thomas Duncan, the Liberian national who travelled Dallas in order to see his family and subsequently succumbed to the disease in Texas. This is because it takes eight to ten days for symptoms, including fever, to appear. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, aptly summarised the situation: "At the very most, all we are buying here is some reduction of anxiety. … That's worth something because, at the moment, we have a much larger outbreak of anxiety than we have of Ebola."