EL PASO, Texas — Amid concerns of the worrisome new coronavirus spreading from China, U.S. health officials are increasing screenings of international travelers to encompass 20 entry points – including border crossings here in El Paso.
The Centers for Disease Control had been screening for illness among passengers arriving from the epicenter of China’s outbreak at five major U.S. airports. But people who’ve visited other parts of China still may be arriving, with stops in other places first. Now, CDC is sending extra staff to other “quarantine stations” to screen arrivals at additional airports and border crossing stations.
While federal officials had also suggested that El Paso International Airport would undergo screenings along with border crossings, an airport spokesperson said Tuesday night that “the CDC has not provided any direct notice to EPIA about plans to conduct screenings. Currently, there are no screenings being conducted at EPIA.”
Even as officials are expanding their checks of international travelers for signs of the virus, they say the risk to Americans so far is very low.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said worry about the virus should not affect Americans’ day-to-day lives. So far, there are five confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. and no sign those patients have spread the illness to those around them.
“At this point Americans should not worry for their own safety,” Azar told reporters Tuesday. Still, he added, “this is a very fast-moving, constantly changing situation.”
With an incubation period of anywhere from two to 14 days, travelers may arrive showing no symptoms. But CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier said the screenings are an opportunity to educate travelers that if they start feeling sick — with a fever, cough or flu-like symptoms — after returning from an outbreak zone, they should contact their doctor. That’s exactly what the first U.S. patients did.
Azar said he has directed $105 million to fight the outbreak. Among the next steps, the CDC developed a test for the virus and aims to make it usable by state health departments, to speed diagnosis of suspected cases. Research also is under way to develop a vaccine or treatment.
But for now, without a vaccine or treatments, the world is depending on tried-and-true public health steps to tamp down the outbreak — finding the infected early and isolating them to stem the spread.
China has confirmed more than 4,500 people with the respiratory illness, which in severe cases can cause pneumonia, with dozens more counted in other countries.