Federal health officials announced Friday that they will screen airline passengers arriving at three US airports – including JFK – for a new virus that has killed two people and sickened dozens.
Starting Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will take temperatures of passengers at JFK and the Los Angeles and San Francisco international airports who arrive from the outbreak city of Wuhan.
“To further protect the health of the American public during the emergence of this novel coronavirus, CDC is beginning entry screening at three ports of entry,” the agency said.
“Investigations into this novel coronavirus are ongoing and we are monitoring and responding to this evolving situation,” Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, said in a release.
The CDC added that the risk from the virus — 2019-nCoV — to the public is currently deemed to be low.
Officials estimate that about 5,000 passengers will go through the process in the next couple of weeks at the three airports. The first direct flight was expected late Friday at JFK, and the next expected Saturday morning in San Francisco.
More than 40 cases of the newly identified coronavirus have been confirmed in Asia, including two deaths — at least one involving a prior medical condition.
Officials have said it probably spread from animals to people but haven’t been able to rule out the possibility that it spreads from person to person.
“This is a serious situation,” Nancy Messonnier, who oversees the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told the Washington Post, adding that it was crucial for the US to be proactive.
At least a half-dozen Asian countries have begun screening airline passengers arriving from central China.
The list includes Thailand and Japan, which both have reported cases of the disease in people who had come from Wuhan.
The CDC said the screenings are part of an effort to better detect and prevent the virus from the same family of bugs that caused global outbreaks of SARS and MERS that began in 2002 and 2012.
The CDC did not screen incoming passengers during those outbreaks, and some public health experts questioned whether they should do so now.
“It’s not a particularly effective intervention, and it potentially offers a false sense of security,” said Dr. Kamran Khan, a researcher at the University of Toronto who has studied airport screenings during the SARS and Ebola outbreaks.
Screeners will likely flag a lot of travelers with other germs during the ongoing flu season while missing infections from the new virus – and experts believe it may take up to two weeks between the time someone is infected and when they develop a fever and other symptoms.
The only time the CDC has performed airport screenings was in 2014, when thousands of passengers from three West African countries were checked for Ebola but no illnesses were detected.
In fact, one infected passenger who had no symptoms passed through the screenings and then developed symptoms after arriving in the US.
Some have argued that screenings have less to do with good science than with politicians hoping to convince the public that it is being protected.
But Cetron, the CDC official, rejected that notion.
“There’s widespread consensus we should be doing this now,” among both political appointees and government scientists, he said.
With Post wires