Beginning today: Ebola screenings for some fliers at Hartsfield

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Anyone traveling from Uganda will receive a health screening at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and four other U.S. airports

The U.S. government will begin health screenings for travelers from Uganda for the highly contagious and deadly Ebola virus at several major airports, including in Atlanta, amid an outbreak of the virus in Uganda.

The risk in this country is currently seen as low, and there are no “suspected, probable, or confirmed cases” of Ebola here, according to a statement from the U.S. embassy in Uganda. The screenings are being conducted “out of an abundance of caution.”

Dr. Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital, said that people should not be concerned with the possibility of Ebola spreading in this country. A person with the virus must come in contact with another person’s bodily fluids in order for Ebola to spread. Uganda is also a country that has always been very good at containing virus outbreaks, she said.

“COVID spreads much more easily,” she said. “We should be more worried about getting COVID than ever worrying about getting Ebola virus.”

The screenings were ordered Thursday by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and the U.S. State Department, which said all passengers, including U.S. citizens, would be subjected to checks beginning at midnight Thursday.

Travelers who have been in Uganda during the past 21 days, the incubation period for the Ebola virus, will be redirected to one of five U.S. airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The other airports are JFK International Airport in New York, Washington-Dulles International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, and Chicago-O’Hare International Airport.

The screenings will begin rolling out immediately. Passengers will get a “temperature check, risk assessment, visual symptom check, and contact information verification” conducted by the CDC. Authorities will share the information with local health departments at the travelers’ final destination.

Health officials warned physicians around this country to be aware of symptoms and potential cases. The CDC’s health alert urges physicians to get a travel history from patients who have Ebola-like symptoms. There are no approved vaccines in this country for the strain of Ebola virus causing the current outbreak in Uganda.

That outbreak, the worst in two decades, has killed at least 10 people out of 44 confirmed cases, according to the New York Times. Another 20 deaths are under investigation.

The Biden administration says about 145 people enter the U.S. each day from Uganda, with most already arriving at the five large airline hubs. Anyone scheduled to fly into a different airport will be rebooked by their airline, the administration said.

The U.S. Embassy in Uganda advised travelers to contact their airline if they have questions, and to be prepared for flight changes or cancellations.

According to the CDC, Ebola is spread by contact with blood or body fluids of a person infected with the virus or can spread by contact with contaminated objects or infected animals. Ebola poses little risk to travelers or the general public who have not cared for or been in close contact (within 3 feet) with someone sick with Ebola

Symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain and at times internal and external bleeding. The CDC says the death rate for Ebola virus disease ranges from 25 percent to 90 percent.

The CDC issued a travel notice on Ebola in Uganda, advising people to avoid non-essential travel to several districts in Uganda and that travelers should avoid contact with sick people, and isolate immediately and seek medical care if they develop symptoms associated with Ebola.

Since Ebola first appeared in 1976 in South Sudan and Congo, Uganda has had multiple outbreaks of the deadly virus, including one in 2000 that killed more than 200 people.

During one outbreak in 2014, American health workers who were treating the sick in West Africa were themselves infected and brought to Atlanta for treatment. Researchers at Emory University working with the CDC had prepared an isolation treatment suite for victims of infectious diseases such as Ebola.

In a decision that sparked an explosion of public concern and media coverage, Dr. Kent Brantly was flown to Emory for treatment. As he arrived, news camera trucks lined Clifton Road and news helicopters hovered overhead. His successful treatment proved that Ebola’s survival rates could be improved with better medical care. Nineteen days after entering the unit, Brantly was declared disease free, surviving an outbreak that would kill 11,000 in West Africa. Other Ebola patients would also be treated at Emory’s facility.

The Associated Press and staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this report.