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Border officials to begin screening passengers for Ebola at five US airports

The main terminal at Washington Dulles airport
The main terminal at Washington Dulles airport
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control announced today that five US airports will begin screening passengers arriving from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone for signs of Ebola infection.

According to the CDC, over 94 percent of travelers from those three affected countries enter the US through one of the five airports that will implement the screening measures: JFK in New York City, Newark, Washington-Dulles, Chicago-O'Hare, and Atlanta. JFK, which receives more than half of those passengers, will begin screening on Saturday, October 11.

Travelers will be screened at the border, immediately after they go through passport control, in a special area of the airport. Customs and Border Protection officers will take passengers' temperatures and ask them a series of questions about their health and possible Ebola exposure.

Passengers who do not have fevers or any history of exposure to Ebola will be given information about the virus and asked to complete a temperature monitoring chart at home. Those who do have fevers or who give answers that raise concerns about possible Ebola exposure will be referred to a CDC officer in the airport, and then to public health authorities if it is determined that further monitoring is necessary.

This new plan appears to be a departure from statements that CDC Director Tom Frieden made last week. On a press call, Frieden expressed reluctance to introduce additional screening measures, saying that the CDC already had officials stationed in airports watching for passengers who appeared to be at risk for Ebola, and that "any time there's an ill traveler, we would rapidly intervene to isolate that individual and ensure they're appropriately tested."

Airport testing is not going to completely solve the problem. Notably, even these new screening measures would not necessarily have revealed that Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died of Ebola in Dallas on October 8, was infected with the virus. Duncan had no symptoms when he arrived in the US and did not realize he was sick. It's not clear whether or not he realized that he had been exposed to the disease.

Rather, as Frieden has pointed out, the only way to get to "zero risk" that infected travelers could bring Ebola to the US is to control the outbreak in West Africa.

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