CDC To Implement Tougher Ebola Screenings At U.S. Airports -- Senator Schumer

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Senator Charles Schumer

Following a personal call with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y) announced that the CDC is preparing to implement tougher Ebola screening requirements at U.S. airports this week, beyond what the administration announced yesterday.

During the call, Schumer praised Director Frieden and the CDC’s response and reiterated that while there is no need for panic, the CDC could take additional steps to ensure the U.S. remains safe. While CDC is still finalizing the additional screening and security procedures they will implement, Director Frieden told Schumer that some of the procedures would likely follow recommendations the Senator outlined in a letter to the CDC and CBP this past weekend.

“As each day brings additional cases of Ebola and new countries are being forced to confront the epidemic, it makes eminent sense for the CDC to step up their efforts to keep this disease from taking hold in the United States,” said Schumer. “The CDC has been doing a very good job thus far in combating the threat, but you can’t be too careful when it comes to stopping a deadly epidemic. I’m pleased the CDC will be going further and ramping up their screening procedures so that we can prevent additional cases of Ebola here at home.”

Previously, Schumer had outlined several recommendations to the CDC to combat the threat. First, Schumer called on the CDC to train federal Customs and Border Protection (CBP) airport agents to actively screen air passengers for fevers upon arrival in the United States, when the traveler originated from Ebola hotspots in West Africa, through either a direct or indirect flight.

Fevers are an early warning sign of Ebola, but currently individuals are only being screened in West Africa. Schumer urged that this process also require that those travelers fill out a detailed CDC health form to help detect any contact had with Ebola before they arrived in America. Schumer said that CDC and CBP should also conduct this intense health screening for personnel working on cargo ships at our ports of entry, particularly considering that Liberia has the second largest cargo ship fleet in the world. Experts have said almost universally that a travel ban will not work, and CDC is vehemently opposed, but checking temperature and screening on U.S. soil could well be an acceptable middle ground.

Second, Schumer urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to create a database of passengers flying to and from West Africa, directly or indirectly, to be shared with local hospitals nationwide. Schumer said that this searchable, 90-day, database should be similar to those that are already shared with local law enforcement, and could serve as a tool for hospitals and help avoid mistakes like that in Dallas. Lastly, Schumer called for additional CDC funds to go towards contact tracing in West Africa, which is a highly successful yet underfunded procedure abroad.

Schumer noted that the CDC has done a good job thus far in protecting Americans from the virus, including the health workers that are dealing directly with potential and confirmed Ebola cases. Director Frieden informed Schumer that CDC would implement additional procedures this week, some of which would follow recommendations that Schumer made after the first U.S. case was diagnosed.

Previously, Schumer called for:

First, Schumer called on CDC personnel, in conjunction with CBP, to conduct a more comprehensive health procedure at United States’ international airports and ports, including a temperature-check and CDC-created health survey, for travelers returning from Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, either directly, or through another secondary airport to connect, like Munich, Brussels, London, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam.  The CDC has directed West African countries to conduct fever checks before people depart Ebola-affected countries, yet, individuals are not required to undergo the same rigorous health testing once landing in the United States. Currently, CBP is “passively screening” passengers per CDC guidance, which only entails visual observation to determine if a passenger appears to be ill. Screening and testing one’s temperature in the U.S. adds an extra and very reliable layer of protections. In addition, it will catch those that showed no symptoms when departing West Africa, but that developed them while in flight.

Schumer also asked CDC and CBP to initiate a “health declaration form,” which should include an in-depth questionnaire asking specific questions about their stay in West Africa. This questionnaire could trigger further questions about their potential contact with Ebola-affected individuals, even if they do not display a fever at that time. Schumer explained that because Mr. Duncan allegedly lied on his form, it’s possible that a more in-depth and comprehensive questionnaire could both prevent further individuals from lying and/or catch individuals who may be withholding information.

Additionally, Schumer wants personnel on cargo ships from the same West African countries to be screened in the same way. Schumer noted that this would apply to ships from all of these countries, but in particular, Liberia’s cargo fleet includes 3,500 Liberian-flagged ships and is the second largest in the world.

Second, Schumer urged DHS to create a temporary database of passengers flying to and from Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, either directly, or through another secondary airport. On a short-term, emergency basis, Schumer said that DHS should make this database available to local hospitals nationwide in the same way that the database is shared with local law enforcement. Schumer said that, the hospital-shared database should expire in 90 days, in order to protect privacy concerns. Schumer explained that a health database would allow hospitals to easily search the names of individuals in their care that raise concerns over Ebola, and would help ensure that admitted patients do not lie or omit information about their prior travels.

Third, Schumer urged that CDC to reallocate their general funds and other resources to go towards “contact tracing” abroad. Contact tracing allows officials to determine who may have been exposed to the virus and monitor those individuals. This process of ensuring containment was highly effective in containing SARS and is incredibly underfunded.

Contact tracing is effective when you can locate any potential contacts and monitor them for symptoms for 21 days in the case of Ebola. According to a recent CNN article, this has proven to be extremely difficult in West African countries due to the lack of record keeping and databases where potential contacts can be found. There are also not enough people to do the work of contact tracing. This is why additional resources and funding is needed in these counties to assist with this work and the overall containment of the disease.

According to the CDC, the 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history. Thus far, the virus has affected numerous countries in West Africa, including Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Additionally, Senegal was affected because of a travel-associated case. Overall, among Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leon, there have been 7,157 total cases, 3,330 total deaths and 3,953 lab-confirmed cases as of October 2, 2014. In Nigeria, there have been 20 total cases, 8 total deaths and 19 lab-confirmed cases. 

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