Ebola outbreak: New restrictions coming for West Africa travellers to U.S.

The United States ratcheted up its safeguards against Ebola on Tuesday, requiring travellers from three countries at the centre of an epidemic in West Africa to fly into one of five major airports conducting enhanced screening for the virus.

U.S. to funnel travelers from Ebola-hit region through 5 airports

A passenger who arrived from Sierra Leone at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 5 in Chicago is screened for Ebola on Oct. 16. The U.S. says travellers from three West African countries will now have to go to one of five major airports for screening. (Melissa Maraj/U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Associated Press)

The United States ratcheted up its safeguards against Ebola on Tuesday, requiring travellers from three countries at the centre of an epidemic in West Africa to fly into one of five major airports conducting enhanced screening for the virus.

Restrictions on passengers whose trips originated in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea were announced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and due to go into effect on Wednesday. The precautions stop well short of the travel ban sought by some U.S. lawmakers to prevent more Ebola cases in the United States.

Affected travellers will have their temperatures checked for signs of a fever that may indicate Ebola infection, among other protocols, at New York's John F. Kennedy, New Jersey's Newark, Washington Dulles, Atlanta, and Chicago's O'Hare international airports, officials said.

"We are working closely with the airlines to implement these restrictions with minimal travel disruption," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. "If not already handled by the airlines, the few impacted travellers should contact the airlines for rebooking, as needed."

Johnson said those airports account for about 94 per cent of travellers flying to the United States from the three countries, noting that there are no direct, non-stop commercial flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea to the United States.

"We currently have in place measures to identify and screen anyone at all land, sea and air ports of entry into the United States who we have reason to believe has been present in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea in the preceding 21 days," Johnson said.

Washington-based trade group Airlines for America, or A4A, noted that under 150 people per day travel to the United States from those three countries and about six percent of them, some nine people daily, have been arriving at airports other than the five airports with enhanced Ebola screening.

The group's member airlines are "co-operating fully" with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to reroute that six percent of travellers to the five designated airports, A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina said.

4,500 dead

The group's members include Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines, none of which fly to the affected countries. However, they may carry passengers from these countries on a connecting flight.

The worst Ebola outbreak on record has killed more than 4,500 people, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Only three Ebola cases have been diagnosed in the United States: Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan, who died on Oct. 8 at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, and two nurses who treated him.

On Tuesday, the U.S. National Institutes of Health outside Washington, D.C., upgraded the medical condition of one of the nurses, Nina Pham, to good from fair. She entered a special NIH facility in Bethesda, Md., for treatment last Thursday.

The other nurse, Amber Vinson, is being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Vinson's mother, Debra Berry, told ABC's Good Morning America program her daughter is weak but recovering.

NBC freelance cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, who contracted Ebola while working in West Africa, is free of the virus and will leave the Nebraska Medical Center on Wednesday, the hospital said. Mukpo arrived in the United States on Oct. 6 for treatment.

He is the second patient to be successfully treated for Ebola at the Nebraska Medical Center, the hospital said on Tuesday, and the fifth treated in the United States to fully recover.

"Recovering from Ebola is a truly humbling feeling," Mukpo said in a statement. "Too many are not as fortunate and lucky as I've been. I'm very happy to be alive."

"I was around a lot of sick people the week before I got sick," said Mukpo, the first U.S. journalist known to have contracted Ebola. "I thought I was keeping a good distance and wish I knew exactly what went wrong."

He said his illness had not changed his feelings about Liberia. "I don't regret going to Liberia to cover the crisis. That country was a second home to me and I had to help raise the alarm."

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