- The CDC confirmed that 20 U.S. airports are screening travelers from China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
- Americans are also encouraged to avoid nonessential travel to those countries.
- Infectious disease doctors explain what travelers can expect during a screening and what happens if an individual shows COVID-19 symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is ramping up its efforts to identify people who may be infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that has caused thousands of illnesses and nearly 3,000 deaths worldwide, primarily in China.
The organization announced recently that passengers arriving from China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran will be screened in airports, and there is a ban on non-U.S. citizens arriving from Iran. Americans are also encouraged to avoid nonessential travel to those countries.
Some airlines have also suspended or reduced travel to Italy:
- American Airlines announced Saturday that it would not be flying to and from Milan from New York’s JFK Airport and Miami International Airport, which the airline said was due to a reduction in demand.
- Delta Airlines has temporarily suspended daily flights between JFK and Milan, but will resume flights on May 1 and 2.
- United Airlines has also suspended operations between the U.S. and Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong, and Shanghai through April 30, the airline said.
This novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19 or the Wuhan coronavirus, was originally thought to spread from animals to people, “but person-to-person spread of 2019-nCoV is occurring,” the CDC says. There are at least 62 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV in the U.S., with more than 472 cases pending, according to the most recent CDC data.
The CDC says coronaviruses usually spread from an infected person to others through the air by coughing or sneezing, close contact like touching or shaking hands, or by touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes prior to hand washing.
That’s where health screenings come in. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that people “are presenting with a wide range of symptoms,” similar to those of the flu, such as a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever, and general feelings of being unwell. Coronavirus can also cause lower-respiratory tract infections like pneumonia or bronchitis, the CDC says.
So, what should travelers expect during the expanded screenings? Here’s what the process looks like.
First, which U.S. airports are screening for coronavirus?
- Los Angeles International
- San Francisco International
- Chicago O’Hare
- New York JFK
- Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International
- Houston George Bush Intercontinental
- Dallas-Fort Worth International
- San Diego International
- Seattle-Tacoma International
- Honolulu International
- Anchorage Ted Stevens International
- Minneapolis-St. Paul International
- Detroit Metropolitan
- Miami International
- Washington Dulles International
- Philadelphia International
- Newark Liberty International
- Boston Logan International
- El Paso International
- Puerto Rico’s San Juan Airport
What happens during a coronavirus health screening?
The screening is broken into two parts, according to the CDC: First, people will fill out a short questionnaire about their travel, any symptoms they might have, and their contact information. Then, CDC staff will take the temperature of each traveler with a hand-held thermometer that doesn’t touch the skin and observe the traveler for any signs of illness, like a cough or difficulty breathing.
If someone is found to be sick, CDC officials will evaluate the individual further to see if they should be taken to a hospital for medical evaluation and to get care as needed. Currently, people who test positive for COVID-19 are being quarantined.
If someone doesn’t have symptoms, CDC staff will give them health information cards. The cards tell travelers what symptoms to look out for, and what to do if they develop symptoms within 14 days.
“One of the key things the screening does is it gives the CDC and public health authorities time to educate the passenger about what to do if they get sick after they leave the airport, and alert them to the fact that they might be sick,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security
Wait, didn’t a few people diagnosed in the U.S. get past a screening?
It is possible that diagnosed patients in the U.S. got back into the country without any signs of illness—but you have to remember that the U.S. originally only had screenings set in up three major airports, Dr. Adalja says. Before that, there were no screenings at all.
It’s hard to say what this means, exactly, for how the novel coronavirus incubates, its symptoms, and how it’s spreading. “It’s almost changing on a day-to-day basis,” Dr. Adalja says. Plus, those who have been diagnosed were aware enough of the risk to see their doctors and get proper medical treatment. Travelers will be on even higher alert now that the CDC is handing out information on what to do if symptoms develop.
According to CNN, the U.S. is considering “expanded” screenings. It’s unclear exactly what that means at this time, Dr. Adalja says, but the State Department is trying to get certain countries to do more exit screening of passengers before they come to the U.S.
What's more, some experts believe that travel screenings don’t seem to be all that effective at preventing coronavirus anymore. “This horse is out of the barn,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine “Is this still a worthwhile focus of resources?”
How to reduce your coronavirus risk while traveling
The U.S. currently recommends that people avoid all non-essential travel to countries with large coronavirus outbreaks, like China, South Korea, and Italy, but it’s still understandable that you might feel worried when you travel anywhere.
In general, Pinki J. Bhatt, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School recommends doing the following to reduce your risk:
- Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who appears to be sick from an acute respiratory infection.
- Practice good hand hygiene when you travel, meaning you should wash your hands well with soap and water. (The CDC recommends scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.)
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer (60 to 95% alcohol) when soap and water isn’t readily available.
It is not currently recommended that you wear a face mask while traveling or at all—a point that U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently stressed on Twitter.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
How to reduce your coronavirus risk after you’ve been traveling
It’s tempting to want to decontaminate yourself after you travel, but Dr. Bhatt says that’s not necessary. Still, she adds, there are a few things you can do:
- Continue to practice good hand hygiene.
- Shower and put on a clean pair of clothes when you get home.
- See your doctor if you develop symptoms after returning within 14 days from a country with a COVID-19 outbreak. “You should call your doctor or the ER ahead of time to tell them about your symptoms before you actually go there,” Dr. Bhatt says.
- If you suspect you have coronavirus, avoid further travel via public transportation since it increases the risk you’ll infect other people.
Other than practicing good hygiene habits and avoiding travel to restricted areas, Dr. Adalja says there’s only so much you can do to avoid coronavirus. “In time, more countries will have community spread,” he says. “The virus may be basically everywhere at a certain point and you’ll have to be vigilant no matter where you go. Eventually, travel will become less of an issue to think about, because the coronavirus may be everywhere.”
Here’s exactly what you can do to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak near you.
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