Georgia tracking 20 travelers from West Africa

Georgia public health authorities are monitoring 20 travelers who have arrived in the state in recent days from countries affected by the Ebola epidemic.

Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald disclosed the monitoring Wednesday — the same day that the CDC ordered Georgia and five other states to keep track of travelers from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone for 21 days. As it turned out, Georgia was already doing so.

“When they came through the airport they were given instructions and a thermometer,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday, after the first meeting of Gov. Nathan Deal’s new Georgia Ebola Response Team. Fitzgerald did not say the travelers had any Ebola symptoms.

Travelers are not being held in isolation but are required to report their temperature and any other Ebola symptoms daily to state health or local officials.

The new measures begin rolling out in five other states on Monday and will help health officials track individuals during the 21-day period in which people can develop Ebola after being exposed, said Thomas Frieden, director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other states will begin the monitoring in the days following.

The latest stepped-up measures arrive as Ebola anxiety continues to grow in the U.S. The experience of Thomas Eric Duncan heightened concerns that someone infected with Ebola may enter the country before they experience symptoms.

After arriving from Liberia, Duncan began experiencing symptoms several days later. When he went to the hospital in Dallas, he was sent home. He returned to the hospital after feeling worse and later died there.

Frieden said that, as in Georgia, passengers arriving at airports will be given instructions, a log and a thermometer to use to report their temperature daily through the 21-day period. They will also be given numbers to call should they begin to feel symptoms.

The passengers will be asked to provide contact information including their address for the next 21 days, two telephone numbers and two email addresses. They will also need to provide similar information for a family member or friend.

It will be up to each state to determine how best to obtain people’s daily temperature readings. The methods might include self-reporting or having a health worker take the temperature.

“This is another step to protect Americans from Ebola,” Frieden said. “We are tightening the process.”

The five other states are New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey. These states and Georgia receive 70 percent of the travelers coming in from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Fitzgerald, the Georgia health commissioner, said the self-reporting here is being done “manually” but may develop into a more automated process. She did not respond to a reporter’s question as to what the state would do should a traveler refuse to report their temperature.

This higher level of monitoring comes after federal health officials began taking the temperatures of all incoming travelers from these three countries at five major airports in the U.S. Officials this week began requiring that all of these travelers come into the U.S. through the five airports, including Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The airports receive an average of 150 travelers a day from these countries, including a handful each day at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure to Ebola, but the average is eight to 10 days.

Dr. Mitchell Blass, epidemiologist for Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital, said he had suggested a similar plan to CDC weeks ago.

“I think it can make a big difference,” Blass said. “The sooner we identify an individual, quarantine them and place them in an appropriate health setting, the better the chance that they will do well” and the public will be safe.

He said public health officials rightly have the legal power to demand this information from people.

“There are times when the issues of public health trump personal privacy,” he said.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University professor of global health, said, “I think they have some good reasons to do this.”

At the same time he wondered whether the policy was meant to address public fears more than any real threat.

“Are they basing it on science or are they basing it on fear?” he said.

During the CDC press conference Wednesday, several reporters raised concerns that some people may not self-report accurate temperature readings — or any readings at all — to officials.

The CDC’s Frieden said the individual states must decide the best way to obtain the information. If someone stops reporting, he said the person would be tracked down and pressured to report the information. He did not say what legal penalty a person may face if they do not comply.

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