All travelers who come into the U.S. from three Ebola-stricken West African nations will now be monitored for three weeks, the latest step by federal officials to keep the disease from spreading into the country.
Starting Monday, anyone traveling from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will have to report in with health officials daily and take their temperature twice a day.
The measure applies not only to visitors from those countries but also returning American aid workers, federal health employees and journalists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the new step Wednesday.
CDC Director Tom Frieden said monitoring will provide an extra level of safety. Passengers already get screened and temperature checks before they leave West Africa and again when they arrive in the United States.
“We have to keep our guard up,” Frieden told reporters on a conference call.
The Obama administration has resisted increasing pressure to turn away any visitors from the three countries at the center of the Ebola outbreak, especially after a Liberian visitor to Dallas came down with the infectious disease days after he arrived and later died. Instead, passenger screening was put in place at 5 key U.S. airports. That was tightened Tuesday to funnel everyone coming from those countries through those airports so all are checked.
The monitoring program will start in six states – New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Georgia – the destination for the bulk of the travelers from the outbreak region. It will later extend to other states.
Each passenger will be required to provide contact information for themselves as well as a friend or relative. They will be instructed to check for a fever twice a day and report their temperature and any symptoms to health officials daily for 21 days.
How the checks are done – in person, by phone or Skype – will be decided by the states, Frieden said. If a traveler does not report in, public health officials can track them down. How far they can go to get them to cooperate is up to those officials, CDC officials said.
They will also receive “CARE” kits – the name stands for Check and Report Ebola. The kits include a thermometer and instructions on what to do if symptoms occur. Also included is a card to present to health care providers if they seek care.
CDC already was telling its own employees and other health professionals returning from the outbreak zone to monitor their temperature. It can take up to 21 days to develop symptoms, which include fever, headache, muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea.
Earlier this year, roughly 150 travelers to the U.S. each day were from the three countries. But it appears there are far fewer now – there are no direct flights and flights to the area have been curtailed. New York’s Kennedy airport – which handles the most traffic – has averaged 34 a day since screening began Oct. 11.
The other airports are Washington’s Dulles, Newark’s Liberty, Chicago’s O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. While a few of the people screened thus far have been taken to the hospital, none had the infectious disease.
According to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday, Americans are worried about Ebola spreading here, and many say the government hasn’t done enough to prevent that from happening. The poll found a surprising 9 out of 10 people think it’s very necessary to tighten screening procedures.
Some would go even further: Three-quarters think it’s definitely or probably necessary to prevent everyone traveling from places affected by Ebola from entering the U.S.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president has been following advice from scientists that a travel ban could do more harm than good. Health officials fear travelers will just find alternate routes and spark harder-to-trace outbreaks.
Many health experts agree that a travel ban is a bad idea. But one faulted the CDC for being slow to institute the daily monitoring.
Monitoring can’t stop Ebola from coming in, “but we’ll have a better chance” to quickly identify and isolate cases, said Dr. Richard Wenzel, a Virginia Commonwealth University scientist who formerly led the International Society for Infectious Diseases
Such tracking measures might have made a difference in the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who became the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, Wenzel said. Duncan wasn’t sick and passed the screening when he left Liberia. He didn’t develop symptoms until after his arrival. He died Oct. 8.
Two nurses who took care of him at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital were infected; both remain hospitalized. The family of one nurse, Amber Vinson, said Wednesday that tests show the Ebola virus can no longer be detected; the Atlanta hospital where she is being treated wouldn’t release any information.
Maryland’s health secretary said it will depend on individual circumstances how closely the state monitors people. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said the approach will recognize “that some people who come from West Africa are at a higher risk than others.” The CDC isn’t mandating that everyone be watched the same way, he said.
Also on Wednesday, an American video journalist who has recovered from Ebola was being released from a Nebraska hospital. He caught it while working in Liberia.
“Today is a joyful day,” Ashoka Mukpo said in a statement issued by the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. He arrived Oct. 6.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama brought together top aides and his new Ebola coordinator Ron Klain. After their meeting, Obama gave assurances that hospitals across the country were becoming better prepared in the event they have to deal with cases of Ebola.
The virus has killed more than 4,800 people in West Africa, nearly all in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
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