Ebola: Are US airport screenings more about controlling fear than disease?

A new poll found that more than half of Americans are worried about the possibility of an Ebola outbreak. On Thursday, cabin cleaners at LaGuardia Airport walked off the job, citing Ebola fears and concerns about not having proper equipment.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden (l.) writes as President Obama speaks on Oct. 6 with members of his national security team and senior staff about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

New Ebola screening procedures being put in place at US airports may be designed primarily to calm a jittery public, health officials say, given the low risk of an epidemic. 

Health officials have emphasized that the risk of Americans’ contracting Ebola is extremely low – more difficult than catching the flu, experts say. The virus is not airborne and is passed on only through contact with the bodily fluids of those showing symptoms of the disease, making the risk of an epidemic breaking out in the US minuscule.

But a new poll found that more than half of Americans are worried about the possibility of an outbreak. And on Thursday, cabin cleaners at LaGuardia Airport in New York walked off the job, citing Ebola fears and concerns about unsanitary conditions on airplanes.

In an effort to help calm fears, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday that they would begin “new layers of entry screening” at the five airports receiving most of the passengers from the West African nations most affected by the virus. Some health experts say the effort is mostly designed so that the government can be seen to be doing something. 

“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,” said William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, to The New York Times. “At the very most, all we are buying here is some reduction of anxiety.”

“That’s worth something,” Dr. Schaffner added, “because, at the moment, we have a much larger outbreak of anxiety than we have of Ebola.”

The new screenings, which will include taking passengers’ temperatures with special non-contact thermometers, will begin Saturday at New York’s JFK International airport. The New York hub receives nearly half of all travelers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where more than 3,400 people have died.

Four other airports, including Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta International, will also begin the new screening protocols beginning next week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday.

While there has been one diagnosed case of the disease in the US, an NBC News online survey this week found that more than half the nation are worried there could be an Ebola outbreak in the US, and 58 percent say there should be a total ban on flights from countries affected by the virus. A Pew survey last week found nearly a third of respondents were worried that they or their family members would be exposed to the virus.  

And nearly 200 airline cabin cleaners walked off the job early Thursday morning at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, saying they were fed up with unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, and citing fears of the Ebola virus.

The workers' complaints about not being given adequate cleaning equipment to deal with bodily fluids, however, predate the Ebola outbreaks, and LaGuardia does not receive any flights from the West African nations affected by the outbreak.

The CDC’s new screening protocols for flights arriving from West Africa comes amid a growing chorus of Republican critics who fault the Obama administration’s response to the case of Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who died on Wednesday in Texas.

A Dallas hospital initially bungled the diagnosis and sent Mr. Duncan home, and his case has fueled worries that travelers arriving from Ebola-stricken nations could slip into the country undetected. 

All of those known to have come into contact with Duncan after he was initially sent home are now being monitored for 21 days – the protocol for those who may have been exposed to the virus. So far, no one has been diagnosed with the disease.

In addition to taking the temperature of all incoming travelers at the five airports, the CDC said trained staff would observe them for signs of the illness and ask a series of questions about their health and their possible exposure to the virus. 

Those deemed at risk would be taken to a CDC quarantine station for further assessment, and, if necessary, brought to a specially equipped hospital.

In New York, more than 50 reporters and photographers crammed into the quarantine unit at Bellevue Hospital on Wednesday to observe the city’s containment rooms – as well as two nurses posing in special protective gear. The photo op was meant to demonstrate the city’s preparedness to handle any possible Ebola cases.

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