By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
As fears mount over the possible spread of Ebola in the U.S. and Europe, international travelers will continue to arrive in Denver every day without health screenings.
Travelers arriving at Customs and Border Protection at Denver International Airport see a single digital screen that warns of Ebola. It lists common symptoms of the deadly virus including fever, headache and diarrhea and encourages anyone who feels sick to seek medical help. But the onus is on travelers to see the cautionary sign and tell officials if they are feeling sick.
Ebola spreads only through bodily fluids and is not nearly as contagious as illnesses like measles or the flu that are highly contagious through coughing and sneezing. Therefore, public health experts say entry screenings in the U.S. do more to allay fears of a spooked public than they do to halt the spread of the disease.
Nonetheless federal officials announced Wednesday that they will start screenings at five large U.S. airports. Passengers traveling from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, will be screened for fevers and may be quarantined if health officials think they were exposed to people suffering from Ebola. Screening will begin Saturday at New York’s JFK International Airport.
Enhanced entry screening is slated to begin next week at Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta international airports.
Federal officials said that 94 percent of travelers from Ebola-affected areas travel to these large airports. Many people traveling from Africa change planes in Europe and continue to various locations in the U.S. including Denver.
Altogether about 1.1 million passengers arrived in Denver over the last year on nonstop flights from international destinations, according to DIA officials.
Every day, hundreds of passengers fly directly to Denver from two of Europe’s largest airports: Heathrow in London and Frankfurt in Germany. Passengers also travel daily from Tokyo. And regular flights arrive in Denver from Iceland, Panama, Canada, Mexico and Central America.
“We have on average about 32 international flights per day arriving into Denver for the calendar year 2014,” said Heath Montgomery, a spokesman for DIA.
Montgomery said airport officials don’t make decisions about health screenings. Those calls come from managers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Customs and Border officials.
“We are not among the first five airports to be doing enhanced passenger health screenings. DIA has not been asked to participate. If we were asked to participate in the future, we would certainly be ready to help with that,” Montgomery said.
“We’re not the experts on that. We defer to the people who are the experts in this,” Montgomery said. “We participate actively in planning for this, but we act at their discretion.”
Meanwhile experts in public health say mass entry screening or quarantines of people traveling from Africa would not necessary prevent additional cases of Ebola.
Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to die on U.S. soil from Ebola, did not have a fever when he entered the U.S. from Liberia and therefore would not have been stopped.
“There’s a sense that this is a be-all-and-end-all and that this will put up an iron curtain, but it won’t,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University told the New York Times today.
“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,” Schaffner said.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, has said that travel bans might make U.S. citizens feel safer, but in fact they could prevent health workers from traveling to West Africa to help fight the disease. Travel bans could prevent those workers from later returning to the U.S.
Frieden told the New York Times that the SARS epidemic provides a cautionary tale. The outbreak cost more than $40 billion and triggered “unnecessary and ineffective travel and trade changes.”
“Banning travel would do more harm than good, and paradoxically, it would increase the risk to Americans,” Dr. Frieden said. “People going in have to come out, too. The ability to respond to the outbreak would be undermined.”