What to Know About Coronavirus Before Heading to an Airport

As the number of COVID-19 cases increases worldwide, travelers are on high alert about airport screenings and flight cancellations caused by this disruptive coronavirus. Passengers monitoring U.S. policies on Italy and South Korea in the past few days may have been more confused than informed as reports trickled out. Uncertainty about what to expect has left some returnees from these hotspots taking matters into their own hands.

In an early morning tweet on March 1, President Donald Trump hinted at an airport screening expansion to include arrivals from Italy and South Korea, advising that travelers on flights “from certain designated high risk countries, or areas within those countries … will also be screened when they arrive in America.”

Coronavirus: In addition to screening travelers “prior to boarding” from certain designated high risk countries, or areas within those countries, they will also be screened when they arrive in America. Thank you! @VP @SecAzar @CDCgov @CDCDirector

Trump did not specify which countries or “high-risk areas,” but Katie Miller, a spokesperson for Vice President Mike Pence, told CNN that the existing screening for people arriving from China after more than 14 days in that country will “be expanded to Italy and South Korea.” Miller also mentioned that “exit screening,” or taking temperatures when passengers board a plane for departure, was also in play for these two countries.

In a news conference on Monday afternoon, Pence clarified the current screening plans for travelers from Italy and South Korea.

Despite the initial allusion to screening when travelers “arrive in America,” Pence spelled out an exit screening plan in the conference. He explained that there would be “multiple screenings at all airports in Italy and South Korea” for travelers departing on direct flights to the United States. Both countries are expected to have complete exit screening coverage in place “within the next 12 hours,” he said.

“With regard to international travel, we will continue to monitor cases and determine whether additional travel advisories or restrictions are warranted,” said Pence.

Currently, advisories covering Italy and South Korea (as well as China) have leveled out at “avoid nonessential travel” on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

Recent return from Italy

Sean Ludwig, a Brooklyn freelance writer who returned from a family trip to Italy via Rome on the afternoon of March 1, was surprised to find no Italy-specific screenings or questions on either end of his flight, including arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). Milan, Italy, is a region of rapidly expanding case numbers of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“When we went through the airport, we did expect we would hear additional questions, maybe (they would) give us a pamphlet,” he says. Instead, his group had to respond to a single question at departure in Rome and on arrival at JFK: Had they traveled recently in China? They had not, says Ludwig, so they were waved on through in both instances.

“They did not ask about Iran,” he told Men’s Health, “and asking someone coming in from Rome if they had been to Milan in the past 14 days seems like it would have been a perfect question.” In response to social media queries about screenings, the JFK Airport account tweeted, “We are providing all necessary support for the screening being carried out by @CDCgov & @CBP of passengers who may have been exposed” to the new coronavirus.

Out of an abundance of caution, Ludwig says that he is self-quarantining, based on information he read on the CDC’s COVID-19 website.

What screenings for the coronavirus illness consist of

The CDC’s Kristen Nordlund pointed to information on the agency’s website for details about what travelers can expect in U.S.-based airport screenings, should they eventually encounter them.

Screening staff will query travelers about their health and where they’ve been during their trip. Arriving passengers also are assessed for fever with a non-contact thermometer and for cough and difficulty breathing. For travelers with these symptoms, the CDC site says that its staff will evaluate these cases and transfer them to a medical facility. Those who screen negative for symptoms may still face 14 days under quarantine, as Ludwig chose to do on his own. The site warns, “You may not be able to complete your travel itinerary.”

Currently, screening people at U.S. airports only applies to travelers from China. Arrivals fall into different categories:

People concerned about screening should also be aware that some itineraries may never get off the ground in the first place. A host of airlines, including Delta, have reduced or altogether suspended flights from Italy and South Korea, with the reduced or suspended schedules stretching as far out as May 1.

More than 90,000 people worldwide have become ill during this coronavirus outbreak, with more than 3000 deaths, the vast majority of them in China. Cases have been confirmed in at least 59 countries, with U.S. advisories against nonessential travel to China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. In the United States, six deaths have been reported in Washington state.

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