Ebola travel restrictions imposed
The Obama administration will require all travelers from countries affected by the Ebola epidemic to arrive at one of five major U.S. airports in order to undergo a health screening, officials announced Tuesday.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) measure responds to lawmakers’ calls for the government to take additional steps to ensure no one carries Ebola into the United States.
The administration previously instituted special Ebola screenings at five airports: Washington Dulles International Airport, O’Hare International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Now, people arriving from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone will be required to travel through one of those ports of entry to ensure they undergo an interview and a temperature check. The policy will take effect on Wednesday.
“We are working closely with the airlines to implement these restrictions with minimal travel disruption,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said Tuesday.
“If not already handled by the airlines, the few impacted travelers should contact the airlines for rebooking, as needed.”
Restricting ports of entry for passengers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone was seen as an extra precaution. Johnson said 94 percent of those travelers already arrive at one of the five designated airports.
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The White House said Tuesday the move would help “ensure the safety and security of the American public.” Press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration was “pleased” the new restrictions would go into place starting Wednesday.
“This is relatively creative policymaking,” Earnest said. “This is a situation where the DHS had to work with the airlines that are flying passengers from a wide variety of countries from Europe to the United States. It did require some work with the State Department to inform other countries. So there’s a lot of coordination that had to go into developing and implementing this policy. ”
The White House said its views on a total travel ban, which the president has repeatedly said he opposes, “haven’t changed.”
“The fact of the matter is giving individuals an incentive to conceal their travel history only puts the American public at risk.” Because, he said, “it makes it harder for us to determine which individuals need to be subjected to the screening that we’ve described.”
The White House said that airlines will cover the cost of rebooking passengers scheduled to arrive at U.S. airports off the designated list. A spokesman estimated the group would be smaller than 10 people per day.
Roughly 1,000 people travel to the United States every week from West Africa.
Federal officials started screening airline passengers for Ebola after a Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, traveled to Dallas in September while carrying the virus. He was not showing symptoms at the time and later died after infecting two Dallas nurses.
As part of the screening process, passengers are interviewed about their travel history and possible exposure to Ebola. They also undergo a temperature check, as fever is one of Ebola’s earliest symptoms. There are no rapid diagnostic tests for the disease.
The screenings are designed to alert officials to passengers who may be at high risk of carrying the virus, even if they do not catch every Ebola case. Interviewees provide identification and contact information in the United States, allowing public health officials to follow up if needed.
Officials are increasing restrictions as rank-and-file Republican lawmakers rally around the idea of a flight ban from West Africa until the epidemic is contained. The idea has picked up steam on the Senate campaign trail, where criticism of the White House’s response to Ebola is rising.
Seventy-three House members have backed a travel ban so far, according to a list kept by The Hill. Surveys also show it would have support from a majority of the public.
Early reaction from Republicans was negative.
“The administration must do more to protect Americans,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) in a statement.
“President Obama has a real solution at his disposal under current law and can use it at any time to temporarily ban foreign nationals from entering the United States from Ebola-ravaged countries. The vast majority of Americans strongly support such a travel moratorium and I urge the president to take every step possible to protect the American people from danger.”
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the restrictions were “a good start,” but were not enough.
“Funneling all passengers through these five airports helps close a gap that could have allowed affected travelers into our country with no screening at all,” Upton wrote in a statement. “But certainly not a complete solution.”
Federal officials have spent weeks pushing back against the idea, arguing it would be unenforceable and drive people to travel to the United States from countries where they would not be identified and screened.
Johnson sought to reassure the public Tuesday that there are protocols in place to screen anyone who might be carrying Ebola.
“We currently have in place measures to identify and screen anyone at all land, sea and air ports of entry into the United States who we have reason to believe has been present in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea in the preceding 21 days,” he said in a statement.
Justin Sink contributed to this story, which was updated at 2:36 p.m.