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U.S. directs travelers from Ebola region to airports with screening

Participants in an Ebola education session look over printed materials in New York on Tuesday. (Associated Press)
Participants in an Ebola education session look over printed materials in New York on Tuesday. (Associated Press)
Connie Cass Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Fending off demands to ban travel from Ebola-stricken West Africa, the Obama administration instead tightened the nation’s defenses against Ebola by requiring that all arrivals from the disease-ravaged zone pass through one of five U.S. airports.

The move responds to pressure from some Congress members and the public to impose a travel ban on the three countries at the heart of the Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 4,500 people, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, since it emerged 10 months ago.

Beginning today, people whose trips began in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone must fly into one of the five U.S. airports performing fever checks for Ebola, the Homeland Security Department said.

Previously, the administration said screenings at those airports covered about 94 percent of fliers from the three countries but missed a few who landed elsewhere.

There are no direct flights from those nations into the U.S; about 150 fliers per day arrive by various multi-leg routes.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said “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.”

Since screening started Oct. 11 at New York’s Kennedy airport, 562 people have been checked at the five airports, according to Homeland Security. Of those, four who arrived at Washington’s Dulles airport were taken to a local hospital. No cases of Ebola have been discovered.

The other airports are Newark’s Liberty, Chicago’s O’Hare and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson.

Homeland Security officials at the airports use no-touch thermometers to check for fever, which can be a symptom of Ebola infection. People who have been infected with the virus may not develop a fever and illness for up to 21 days, however.

As the U.S. closed a gap in its Ebola screening, an Ebola-free African country said it would begin checking visiting Americans for the disease.

Rwanda’s health minister said Tuesday that travelers who have been in the United States or Spain – the two countries outside of West Africa that have seen transmission during the Ebola outbreak – will be checked upon arrival and must report on their health during their stay.

No Ebola cases have been reported in Rwanda, which is in East Africa. The U.S. Embassy in Rwanda said that country is banning visitors who have recently traveled to Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, the three countries at the heart of the outbreak, as well as nearby Senegal, which had a single case

The U.S. change comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works to spread the word about its new protective guidelines for medical workers. The advice, released Monday night, had been sought by health workers after two Dallas nurses were infected while caring for a Liberian traveler, the first person diagnosed with the virus in the United States.

The CDC said it’s still unclear exactly how the nurses were infected, but the stronger rules will provide better protection. CDC officials demonstrated the recommended techniques Tuesday at a training session for several thousand health care workers in New York City.

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