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U.S. erecting new barriers against infectious diseases

Justin Gillis Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The government plans to more than triple the number of quarantine stations at airports around the country and hire scores of health officers as part of a broad plan to try to stop deadly infectious diseases from entering the United States.

Ten new stations, at airports stretching from Alaska to Puerto Rico, are already open or nearing completion, and some 50 new health officers are undergoing training. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to build an additional seven stations as soon as it can get the money. Eight stations that have existed for years are gaining staff, so that when the plan is complete, the country will be blanketed by a network of 25 centers designed as a first line of defense against a global disease pandemic.

In practical terms, the plan will not mean much change for international air travelers – at least in normal times. It does mean that if a passenger gets sick on a flight, when the plane lands it is likely to be boarded by federal health officers specifically trained to recognize exotic diseases, not just by local emergency crews.

If a global pandemic looms, though, the plan calls for the centers to play a key role in setting up a firebreak that would try to keep the disease out of the United States. The stations would help coordinate broad programs under which thousands of air travelers might be subject to medical evaluation, or offered medical pamphlets and advice, before being allowed to enter the country. Federal experts emphasized that passengers would be quarantined only if there is strong reason to suspect they have been exposed to a serious disease, and then only long enough rule out that possibility or get them into medical-isolation wards at hospitals.

“We’re not going to lock you up for days,” said Jennifer Morcone, a spokeswoman for the CDC, noting the negative connotation the word quarantine once carried.

“The goal here is to take care of people.”

Many of the new centers are being housed temporarily in small offices or suites, but eventually they will include examination rooms that will allow health officers to isolate and evaluate a few ill passengers at a time, according to the CDC. The centers will never be big enough to quarantine entire planeloads of people but would play a coordinating role if such drastic measures ever became necessary.

Washington Dulles International Airport is getting a new center, with some staff already in place and construction under way on a small office suite. Other centers are opening this year at airports in Anchorage, Boston, Detroit, El Paso, Houston, Minneapolis, Newark, San Diego and San Juan. Quarantine stations have existed for years in Atlanta, Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Seattle, but all those are growing.

The CDC aims to open at least seven more quarantine offices when it can get the money, to bring the national total to 25.

The 50 or so staff members already hired will more than double the CDC’s presence at the nation’s airports.

The CDC’s plan calls for placing at least one doctor, not just inspectors, at every airport with a quarantine station. Up till now, even in long-established stations, the nearest CDC doctor was often hundreds of miles away.

The plan is a response to rising fears about bioterrorism or a potential pandemic of respiratory illness. For example, experts fear that a highly lethal form of influenza now circulating among birds in Asia, if it undergoes certain genetic changes, could start spreading rapidly among humans, potentially killing millions. In an age of global air travel, such an illness could jump from foreign countries to the United States in hours.

The plan is also an attempt to apply lessons from the 2003 scare over a new disease: severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

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