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'A Total Joke': The US's Busiest Airport Is Skipping Coronavirus Screenings

An undetected coronavirus case passing through the Atlanta airport could have staggering consequences.

by Reid Champlin
Mar 24 2020, 8:28pm

Chris Rank / Getty

As Americans abroad frantically flew home before the global coronavirus outbreak trapped them overseas, the Trump administration repeatedly assured both the travelers and the American public that every possible step was being taken to ensure the virus was detected and stopped before it could enter the country.

“We are engaging in healthcare screenings at 13 different airports around the country and working diligently in that regard to put the safety of the American public first,” said Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the White House Coronavirus Task Force, in a March 15 briefing.

But despite promises of strict measures designed to identify and contain cases of COVID-19 at airports around the country, the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International, is failing to adequately screen for the virus, with passengers from high-risk areas saying they faced little to no scrutiny upon landing.

VICE spoke to more than a dozen passengers who have traveled through the Atlanta airport in the past two weeks from countries around the world with coronavirus outbreaks. They all described a screening process that failed to check passengers for symptoms, relied on self-disclosure and outdated guidelines, and left passengers fearing that the measures meant to protect them were doing little to stop the spread of the deadly pandemic.

Security procedures appear to have become even more relaxed as the virus outbreak worsened over the past week. Multiple passengers who flew to the United States within the past five days said they weren’t even given the CDC’s self-identification forms or checked for fever, a departure from the already-relaxed screening of earlier travelers. This new development came just days after the State Department raised its global travel advisory to Level 4: Do Not Travel, advising U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel—and, on Tuesday, the number of confirmed cases in the United States neared 50,000.

As Joshua Potash left Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport for Atlanta Saturday, he had already been scanned for fever and made to fill out a form from the Colombian authorities identifying his recent and planned travel. He expected to face the same hurdles in Atlanta.

“No self-identification form. No temp check. Nothing extra at all. There was no check of any kind upon arriving there at all,” he told VICE.

Steve Ross arrived in Atlanta Friday with his family and “breezed right through” customs and medical screening, saying his family wasn’t checked for symptoms.

“I didn’t really think much of it until later,” Ross told VICE. “That’s when I realized the Dominican Republic gave us more questions than the U.S. did.”

Andrew Michael flew into Atlanta from Paris on March 15, fearing that he would otherwise be unable to return home with his wife and young son. With the White House announcing expanded travel restrictions on most European countries, he expected to face an intense medical screening before being able to leave the airport.

“My wife and I both felt that we would feel at ease once we received instruction at the Atlanta airport.”

Instead, upon landing, local authorities boarded his flight to hand out paper forms asking passengers to self-report their travel and health status. Despite the forms’ claims that all passengers would be checked for fever, a common symptom of the virus, only a handful on Michael's flight were scanned. He and his family filled out the sheet, then disembarked and went on their way, the “enhanced screening” having been completed.

Every passenger VICE spoke to shared similar versions of the same story, with some saying they were given forms that asked only about travel to China even as the virus exploded in Iran, South Korea, Italy, and across Europe. Others said that no one at all was scanned for fever or checked for respiratory symptoms, even among travelers who were displaying symptoms of the virus.

Aaron Thielmeyer was in Stuttgart the day the White House announced travel restrictions on most European nations, including Germany, which had seen its number of confirmed coronavirus cases more than triple in three days. By the time he arrived in Atlanta, he was beginning to show the telltale signs of the virus: a high fever and dry cough (Thielmeyer has not yet been tested for the virus). He expected to face scrutiny from the medical professionals tasked with screening passengers for the virus.

Instead, when he told them he had visited Germany and Austria, they waved him through with no further questions or inspections.

“By all accounts, it was totally normal,” Thielmeyer told VICE.

“I don’t know why these screening procedures wouldn’t be enforced, but it’s incredibly important we reduce the number of cases coming into the United States,” said Olayami Osiyemi, a leading infectious disease doctor currently working on fighting the outbreak in the Southeast. “Social distancing is very important to stop the spread, but it won’t work if more cases continue to come in on the airliners.”

An undetected coronavirus case passing through the Atlanta airport could have staggering consequences. Hartsfield-Jackson International services 2,500 flights and 275,000 travelers every day; it’s a national hub connecting to nearly every city and region in America.

The danger, Osiyemi pointed out, is that cases entering the United States could travel to areas currently less affected by the virus, causing new hotspots to emerge. While national population centers like New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco already have substantial numbers of cases, many mid-sized and small towns across the country have not yet been exposed to the virus. Travelers using Atlanta as a hub to return to more isolated hometowns run the risk of introducing the virus to their communities, starting the cycle of transmission all over again.

Jared Murray-Bruce flew into Atlanta from Lagos on March 15, three days after the White House expanded travel restrictions. He told VICE that no one on his flight had their temperature taken, nor did they receive a travel disclosure form. He then headed to his hometown of Valdosta, Georgia, a city with a population under 60,000.

“I definitely would have appreciated if there was some sort of effort to get an idea if anyone was bringing coronavirus into the country,” Murray-Bruce told VICE. “That wasn’t the case.”

VICE reached out to the Atlanta airport for comment regarding these allegations, asking for clarification on the measures being taken to ensure passenger health. Representatives directed us to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for comment regarding screening procedures. Requests for specific comments to these agencies have gone unanswered at press time.

The FAA’s public advisory on enhanced screenings states that passengers “will be asked about their medical history, current condition, and asked for contact information for local health authorities.” Written guidance should then be provided detailing how passengers can self-quarantine, the advisory states, and local authorities will use the self-identification forms to follow up and ensure these travelers maintain quarantine. Rigorous temperature checks are intended to identify those who might already be showing signs of the virus, as reported by Politico.

While authorities at Hartsfield-Jackson are providing written guidance about self-quarantining, there appears to be little enforcement and even less direct screening of passengers as they enter the United States. According to the people VICE spoke to, no one appeared to be reviewing the forms they had filled out, and temperature checks were performed on few to no passengers.

Many travelers VICE spoke to were shocked at what they saw as deficient security measures by the Atlanta airport, expressing profound unease and a deep fear that the virus could be slipping right through the measures meant to stop it.

“It was a total joke. It absolutely leaves gaps for people to come in unknowingly spreading the virus,” said Natalie Lomas, who arrived in Atlanta on Wednesday from London. “It made me feel that the messages of protecting our borders that we see on TV are not true.”