Travelers will be screened for a novel coronavirus at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, along with 14 other airports, as health officials race to contain the spread of a virus that started in China but has now appeared in more than 60 countries.
Federal health officials announced the heightened airport screening on Tuesday along with new recommendations against nonessential travel to China, where the rapidly spreading virus has killed more than 130 people and infected nearly 6,000.
While China has shut down flights out of Wuhan, the epicenter of the viral outbreak, health officials said some travelers had been in that region and then traveled to other locations before coming to the U.S.
“We’re going to be … identifying ill travelers returning from China so that we can make sure they are appropriately treated so that they don’t pass on this illness to others,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a news conference in Washington, D.C.
The CDC has said five people in the U.S. are infected with the virus, all people who recently traveled to China. Testing has ruled out 32 suspected cases, including two from Minnesota.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport (MSP) is one of roughly 20 U.S. airports or ports with CDC quarantine stations. Medical personnel have the authority at these stations to detain anyone who appears through screening to be at risk for carrying a serious infectious disease. CDC officials at these stations can then deny the at-risk travelers entry into the U.S. or isolate them in hospitals or at their homes to reduce the risk of spreading any infectious disease to others.
Messonnier said these quarantine stations are working daily to prevent travelers from bringing infectious diseases into the U.S. and will expand on those activities to monitor for cases of the novel coronavirus, known formally as 2019-nCoV. In addition to asking questions and taking the temperatures of people returning from China, Messonnier said the screeners will educate the travelers about what to do if they develop symptoms once back home.
Whether specific screening activities for the novel coronavirus are already underway at MSP is unclear. The director of the CDC station there, Dr. Arnold Vang, said he had not been given permission from his agency to discuss activities there.
A spokesman for MSP said any screening activities have not had an impact on general operations or flight schedules.
At the airport on Tuesday night, Lai La Lunde was among just a few travelers who were wearing masks. The resident of Superior, Wis., had just returned from a two-month business trip to the coastal China city of Zhuhai.
With several confirmed cases in the city, the people in Zhuhai were required to wear masks, she said. Even so, the situation there remains “very calm.”
“It isn’t as scary as people think,” she said, though she noted that airports across the U.S. are rightfully taking precautions in the event of an outbreak here.
The thought of the coronavirus crossed Judy Garrard’s mind before she flew out of San Francisco to MSP. A passenger from China was on her plane and sanitized his seat and tray before takeoff, she said. Garrard said she also met a man at the San Francisco airport who had to pay thousands of dollars to fly from China to the U.S. for his father’s funeral.
“It is a worry,” said Garrard, a Minneapolis resident and retired public health professor at the University of Minnesota. “We’re going to Italy later this spring, and we hope it’s blown over by then.”
Health officials acknowledged that they are still learning about the novel coronavirus, including how easily it spreads and whether it is any more severe than the well-known coronaviruses that are leading causes of colds and pneumonia infections in the U.S. every year. Some researchers have concluded that it is much less contagious than measles but can spread about as easily as seasonal influenza viruses.
The added screening at 15 airports is in addition to ongoing screening at five U.S. airports in New York, Texas, California and Illinois that regularly receive direct flights from China.