WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday it will begin enhanced screening of travelers from West Africa arriving at five of the country’s largest airports as it increases efforts to prevent the spread of a deadly Ebola outbreak.
The enhanced screening will start at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday and be extended next week to Newark Liberty in New Jersey, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta.
Combined, those airports receive more than 94 percent of travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hardest hit by Ebola, with JFK accounting for nearly half of them, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
About 150 travelers from the West African countries arrive at the five airports each day, a tiny portion of the total number of international travelers at the five airports.
“The number of travelers is relatively small. We’re talking about 150 per day, so it’s not an effort that would be particularly disruptive to large numbers of people,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told a news conference in Atlanta.
“We think it’s manageable.”
The U.S. government has been under pressure from lawmakers to enhance screening and even ban flights from some West African countries since a Liberian national became first person diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil. Thomas Eric Duncan, who died on Wednesday, left Liberia last week and flew to Dulles and then traveled to Dallas.
Customs and Border Patrol officers will escort travelers from the three countries to a screening area, where trained staff will observe them for signs of illness, ask about their health and possible exposure to Ebola and take their temperature with a non-invasive device, the CDC said.
If they have fever, any other symptoms or give answers on a health questionnaire that point to possible Ebola exposure, they will be evaluated by a CDC quarantine station public health officer. Travelers who are deemed in need of further evaluation will be referred to local public health authorities.
Frieden said health officials believe the new measures will make Americans safer. “We recognize that whatever we do, until the outbreak is over in West Africa, we can’t get the risk to zero in this country,” he said.
U.S. officials stressed that the new program supplements exit screening measures in place in the affected countries. In two months, 36,000 people have been screened, of whom 77 were not permitted to board a flight. The CDC said none of the 77 were infected with Ebola.
“These measures are really just belt-and-suspenders. It’s an added layer of protection on top of the procedures already in place at several airports,” President Barack Obama said on a conference call with state and local officials on Ebola.
According to the World Health Organization, the worst Ebola outbreak on record has killed at least 3,879 people from among 8,033 confirmed, probable and suspected cases since it was identified in Guinea in March.
“It’s going to be a long, hard fight and in West Africa we are far from being out of the woods,” Frieden said.
Shares in major U.S. air carriers declined on Wednesday while major indexes posted their biggest one-day gains so far this year. Delta Air Lines dropped 1.5 percent, United Airlines fell 3.1 percent and American Airlines shed 2.8 percent.
Airlines for America, a trade group representing major U.S. airlines, said the carriers were cooperating with the screening program.
“This screening is being done out of an abundance of caution to protect the well-being of the American public while not disrupting travel to the United States,” Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the group, said in an emailed statement.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Roberta Rampton in Washington and Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Toni Reinhold and Lisa Shumaker