CDC rushes to Newark airport to investigate sick passenger
It might have only been a case of air sickness, but a passenger said to be Liberian on a United Airlines flight that originated in Brussels was taken off the plane in Newark in a hazmat suit by the CDC. Other passengers were briefly detained and, after being questioned, released.
The queasy passenger — who a law enforcement source said had been vomiting — and his daughter, who appeared to be about 10 years old, were fitted with surgical masks and were walked off United Airlines Flight 998 by CDC personnel in white hazmat uniforms.
The father and daughter, whose names were not released, remained in quarantine last night at University Hospital in Newark, the law enforcement source said.
The father had been outfitted from neck to toe in his own hazmat suit, his face still masked, by the time he was wheeled into the hospital’s trauma center.
The CDC and the hospital were releasing no information on the father’s condition as of early Saturday evening.
The remaining passengers aboard the United Airlines flight 998 were held on the Boeing 777-200 twin engine jet for about two hours, then were taken off and questioned for another couple of hours before being allowed through customs, multiple fliers told The Post.
“Two or three hours before we were supposed to land, it was announced that there was a medical emergency,” recalled passenger Dane West, of New Jersey.
“They didn’t say it could be Ebola. We really didn’t know what was wrong. When the guy walked off he didn’t look ill at all to me. He was wearing a face mask. Apparently he was sleeping and he woke up and felt air sick.”
Mark Wells, 42, of Randolf, NJ, said he and fellow passengers were puzzled at why a sick passenger was being kept on the plane.
“Then the CDC came on board in hazmat suits and they escorted him off,” Wells said of the yet-named passenger. “He looked sick, a little wobbly. The girl with him seemed fairly calm. They never said Ebola on the plane.”
You would expect that if the passenger had been symptomatic at the Brussels airport before boarding, he would not have been allowed on the flight. But we've already seen one Liberian who knew he had Ebola come to America thinking he had a better chance of surviving - also via Brussels.
One reason to think seriously about keeping passengers from West Africa out of the United States is because procedures at the airport in Monrovia, Liberia to screen passengers are, according to one viralogist, inadequate to detect someone already infected.
Virologist Heinz Feldmann, who has studied Ebola for 20 years and is currently working on one of several experimental vaccines for the virus, warned in a September interview that the airport was the place in Monrovia where he felt the most unsafe, and that screening for Ebola at the airport was a "disaster."
In an interview with Science Magazine in September, Feldmann, who had recently returned from three weeks in Monrovia, explains that the front lines in west Africa against the Ebola virus are by far the most dangerous; those working for organizations like Doctors Without Borders live under the constant threat of contracting the virus. Feldmann notes that he himself did not feel unsafe working in Liberia because his work was academic, and thus enclosed with the virus, rather than the patients:
Patients are like virus factories producing up to a hundred million virus particles per milliliter of blood, and a patient is unpredictable; a patient could cough, could spit at you, vomit on you, or even become aggressive and attack you. So these people really have the highest risk and have the highest burden.
Feldmann confesses that the place at which he felt the least safe was the airport, calling it the place of "highest risk." For example, screening occurs in areas confined enough that those being screened are likely to come into contact with the virus should an Ebola patient be among them. Furthermore, screeners are so poorly trained that they often cannot even properly measure temperature.
"They are checking your temperature three times before you get into the airport, but if you look at the people that do this kind of work, they don't really know how to use the devices," Feldmann explains. "They are writing down temperatures of 32°C, which everybody should know is impossible for a living person." Feldmann calls for major overhauls in the system, as he asserts that the checks are "completely useless" and "just a disaster."
So it is entirely possible that Ebola victims can leave Liberia bound for anywhere in the world, taking their infection with them. "Ebola tourism" looks to be a growth industry as health care services break down in Liberia and elsewhere and desperate people look to find a way to save their own lives.