Feds to screen for Ebola at O’Hare, but aldermen demand more

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O’Hare Airport passengers arriving on flights from West Africa will have their temperature taken beginning next week, as part a federal response to the burgeoning and frightening Ebola epidemic.

The federal screening will begin in Chicago, New York, Newark, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. Airports in those five cities currently serve 94 percent of passengers traveling to the U.S. from three African nations hardest hit by Ebola: Liberia, Sierra Leon and Guinea.

Those arriving passengers will be required to fill out a questionnaire and have their temperature taken with a device described as a “gun-like, non-contact thermometer.”

Those found to have a fever or symptoms of possible Ebola exposure will be evaluated further by a CDC quarantine station public official and if needed, be referred to a hospital, where they would be treated in an isolated private room.  

The federal screening of passengers arriving on flights from West Africa does not go nearly a far as the screening proposed at Wednesday’s City Council meeting as Chicago prepares to welcome runners arriving  from all over the world to participate in Sunday’s Chicago Marathon.

Two influential aldermen — Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd) — want to set up screening facilities at both O’Hare and Midway bankrolled by the airlines to test for a broad range of infectious diseases, including Ebola, swine-flu, SARS, hanta virus, measles MRSA and tuberculosis.

Screenings would “likely include mandating” that passengers arriving from outside the U.S. “fill out questionnaires and, if warranted, submit to their temperature being taken or further examination before being allowed entry” into the country, according to a news release distributed by the sponsors.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he would withhold judgment on the demand for broader screening. He’s more focused on the more limited federal screening of West African passengers that’s about to get under way at O’Hare.

“I will look at that [ordinance, but] we have something immediate in front of us with the resources of the federal government coming to play here in Chicago. That’s gonna be my first step,” the mayor said.

“We already coordinate with our federal partners at O’Hare [and] also at Public Health with the CDC and we’re gonna continue to put in the resources with our federal partners to ensure that the traveling public and the public here in Chicago know we have public health and public safety first and foremost and all the energy is directed in that way.”

The broader ordinance introduced Wednesday states, “All passengers arriving at O’Hare [and Midway]… from international destinations shall complete an infectious disease behavioral screening as prescribed” by the city’s Department of Public Health.

“Should a passenger be designated by the screening as at risk they shall be isolated for further testing,” the ordinance said.

Passengers “observed to have symptoms of an infectious disease shall complete an infectious disease medical screening by a medical professional as proscribed by the Commissioner of Public Health.”

The ordinance states, “The costs of these programs shall be undertaken by the airline industry.”

Burke and Zalewski could not be reached for comment about whether the federal screening would eliminate the need for the ordinance.

In a news release, they argued otherwise.

“It is important that the city of Chicago move swiftly to put all reasonable precautions in place to avoid any possible danger because O’Hare Airport is such a busy hub — not only for Chicago, but also the Midwest,” Burke was quoted as saying.

Zalewski added, “The aim is to reduce the risk of the continued spread of this deadly disease by keeping a vigilant eye on passengers disembarking in Chicago — especially while this epidemic continues to ravage West Africa.”

Meanwhile, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck said on Wednesday about the proposal: “In terms of any international port, that’s not the guidance at this point in time.”

Hasbrouck went on to say that would be “overkill.”

He said it was more appropriate to focus on people coming into O’Hare airport from the three African countries known to be affected by Ebola.

Contributing: Monifa Thomas

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