Published December 20, 2015
Travelers arriving from Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa will start to have their temperatures taken upon arrival at five U.S. airports as part of extra screening measures being implemented in the coming days, officials said Wednesday.
The new procedures will begin Saturday at New York's JFK International, and be launched next week at the Newark, Washington Dulles, Chicago O'Hare and Atlanta airports.
"We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said in a statement.
The screenings will be conducted for travelers arriving at those five airports from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to the CDC and Department of Homeland Security, all those travelers will be escorted by Customs officials to a screening area after their passports are reviewed.
In that area, travelers will have their temperatures taken with a "non-contact thermometer." Customs staff also will observe them for "signs of illness" and ask a series of questions. Anyone who has a fever or symptoms, or reveals information pointing to possible Ebola exposure, will next be "evaluated by a CDC quarantine station public health officer," according to a statement from the CDC and DHS.
From there, anyone needing further evaluation will be "referred to the appropriate public health authority." Travelers who show no symptoms or other signs of exposure will get information for "self-monitoring," be asked to fill out a daily "temperature log" and be asked to give their contact information.
Such screening already is done at points of departure from these regions. But amid heightened concern about the possibility of the virus spreading, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest described this as just another step.
"What we are essentially doing is adding another layer of security," Earnest said.
Earnest said the five airports cover the destinations of 94 percent of the people who travel to the U.S. from the three heavily hit countries in West Africa -- Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. He estimated that about 150 people would be checked a day under the new procedures.
A Liberian man with Ebola -- the first case diagnosed in the U.S. -- died on Wednesday. He had come to Dallas in late September but did not display obvious signs of having the disease when he entered the U.S.
Also on Wednesday, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Customs and Border Protection agents are handing out information sheets to travelers with details of what symptoms to look for and directions to call doctors if they become sick within 21 days -- the incubation period for Ebola.
Homeland Security agents at airports and other ports of entry already had begun observing travelers coming into the United States for potential signs of Ebola infection.
The fact sheet to be given to arriving travelers says: "You were given this card because you arrived to the United States from a country with Ebola." It tells passengers to "please watch your health for the next 21 days" and to "take your temperature every morning and evening, and watch for symptoms of Ebola," which are listed on the sheet.
Mayorkas said agents would observe all travelers for "general signs of illness" at the points of entry. He spoke at an airport security conference.
The White House, in a fact sheet this week, generally described Customs and Border Protection practices of being alert to passengers with obvious illnesses, but did not specify exactly what would be done to find potentially infected passengers.
The Obama administration has wrestled in recent weeks with what it can do, since arriving passengers may not be symptomatic when they arrive.
Mayorkas said the department was aware of those issues and is "taking a layered approach."
Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, chairman of the House Rules Committee, continued to question the administration's plans, even as the new airport measures were announced.
"We need to make sure that the American people understand what the plan is and give people confidence that they are addressing the issue instead of saying, well we put this out in the paper in the Financial Times two weeks ago there's no need to be alarmed," he told FoxNews.com. "In fact, there is alarm because this administration continues to be unprepared."
Ebola has killed more than 3,400 people in West Africa and infected at least twice that many, according to the World Health Organization. The virus has taken an especially devastating toll on health care workers, sickening or killing more than 370 of them in the three hardest-hit countries -- places that already were short on doctors and nurses before Ebola.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.