To fight Ebola, U.S. takes a harder line on travelers

Under pressure from lawmakers and the U.S. public to control the spread of the Ebola virus, the Obama administration on Tuesday announced additional restrictions on travelers from three African countries.

“We are announcing travel restrictions in the form of additional screening and protective measures at our ports of entry for travelers from the three West African Ebola-affected countries,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a news release.

The enhanced screenings for travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea go into effect Wednesday.

Travelers from those Ebola-affected countries will have to fly into one of five U.S. airports where screening for body temperature already is in place: New York’s JFK, Newark, N.J., Washington Dulles, Atlanta and Chicago.

The new policy comes just in time for many critics.

“Putting in place travel restrictions and additional screening measures at our airports is a common-sense proposal, and I am pleased to see DHS make this announcement,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. He said the administration should also suspend all visas from the three affected countries.

Dozens of lawmakers from both parties, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, have called for a travel ban from West Africa. Congress is on recess until Nov. 12, so legislation won’t be considered until then.

The Obama administration stood by its opposition to a ban, saying such a policy would make the job of tracking anyone infected with Ebola even tougher.

“They would seek to evade detection,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at Tuesday’s daily briefing, referring to such travelers. “They would conceal the true nature of their travel history in an attempt to enter the country.”

He added: “The vastly preferable system to have in place would be for these individuals to be subjected to intensive screening before they ever board an aircraft, and then to be subjected to an additional round of screening upon arrival in the United States.”

Travel industry officials, who oppose a ban, were pleased with the Department of Homeland Security’s approach.

“We believe this announcement will achieve the aim of keeping sick people out of the U.S., without abandoning whole countries in their efforts to fight Ebola or driving travelers from those countries ‘underground’ in attempts to reach the U.S.,” Roger Dow, the U.S. Travel Association’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

There are no direct flights to the United States from the three West African countries, but federal officials want to be sure to intercept anyone who’s been on an originating flight from those places.

While the five airports account for 94 percent of travelers from the three countries, the directive that all travelers be processed through them is designed to ensure that all entrants to the U.S. from Ebola-affected areas are screened.

Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient in the United States to die from the disease, entered the country through Dallas from Brussels after an originating flight in Liberia.

“Passengers flying into one of these airports from flights originating in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are subject to secondary screening and added protocols, including having their temperature taken, before they can be admitted into the United States,” said Johnson.

The announcement follows a study published this week in the British medical journal Lancet that predicts that there could be a handful of people a month from the Ebola-affected countries boarding overseas flights who are infected with the virus but don’t display symptoms. Ebola, which is spread through close contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, can be caught only when that person is symptomatic.

“Based on epidemic conditions and international flight restrictions to and from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as of Sept 1, 2014 (reductions in passenger seats by 51 percent for Liberia, 66 percent for Guinea and 85 percent for Sierra Leone), our model projects two to eight travelers infected with Ebola virus departing the above three countries via commercial flights, on average, every month,” concluded the Canadian researchers.

The study recommends that travelers be screened at their points of departure, something that’s being done at the three West African countries’ airports. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization helped set up the protocols, which include a questionnaire, followed in some cases by a temperature test. An elevated temperature is a sign of the disease, which has an incubation period of up to 21 days.

“Are people being truthful?” asked Stewart Verdery, a former DHS assistant secretary who’s now a consultant. “They are asking people to self-select.”

As of Wednesday, passengers arriving to the United States, at least, will face tougher scrutiny.

White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.