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At San Francisco Airport, Caution Around New Coronavirus Screenings


Chinese state media is reporting that flights leaving Wuhan, China, will be cancelled starting tomorrow. The goal is to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 500 and killed at least 17 people. In the meantime, public health officials here in the U.S. are checking the temperature of passengers coming from central China. Lesley McClurg of member station KQED reports from San Francisco International Airport.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: One of the last flights this week leaving the city of Wuhan landed in San Francisco. This week's arriving passengers are easy to spot as they leave customs. They're wearing disposable paper masks, though Li Li is carrying hers.

LI LI: Actually, it's not that scary like all the news.

MCCLURG: The middle-aged nurse with short, wiry curls says people are just starting to worry about the outbreak in China.

LI: At the very first beginning, everybody ignored. Yeah, nobody paid attention. Just these three days and, like, explosion like this. Yeah.

MCCLURG: The illness can trigger coughing, fever, breathing struggles and pneumonia, though Bei Bei Tong is too giddy to worry.

BEI BEI TONG: It's the first time I go abroad, so I'm very excited.

MCCLURG: Tong is here to celebrate Lunar New Year this weekend. She adjusts her gold spectacles and pulls down her mask. She reveals bright red lips.

TONG: I believe my government - they do many things to protect ourselves.

MCCLURG: Tong says Chinese officials offered her a mask at both the railway station and the airport in Wuhan. They also checked her temperature before she boarded the plane in China. When she landed in the U.S., health officials here checked her temp again. They also scanned a health questionnaire, asking her about any signs of sickness, like coughing or fever.

MARTY CETRON: If you happen to be someone coming from an area of the outbreak, you should take those early minor signs and symptoms much more seriously and seek medical attention early.

MCCLURG: That's Dr. Marty Cetron with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says passengers with a temp above 100 degrees will be pulled aside for further testing outside the airport.

CETRON: Sick people don't belong on planes in those public places where there's high-speed and high-volume travel that can translate pathogens across thousands of miles.

MCCLURG: He says entry screening is a good precautionary measure, but...

CETRON: There's no system that's going to be foolproof.

MCCLURG: Which is why there's some skepticism around screening in the first place - Josh Michaud is an expert on global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

JOSH MICHAUD: You really are looking for a needle in a haystack when you're using airport screening to identify cases.

MCCLURG: Michaud says it's very difficult to detect a rare disease among thousands, potentially millions of passengers. For example, an infected person could slip across the border if their symptoms aren't showing up yet. Michaud would rather see more resources allocated to places experiencing new cases, like Taiwan and Korea.

MICHAUD: Make sure that those systems are functioning well, that the providers are well-educated, that they know what to do and how to report those cases.

MCCLURG: Early diagnosis and minimizing contact with other people are key. There's no cure for the new virus. That's why Jay Gu is erring on the side of caution. The San Francisco resident is wearing a paper mask at the airport as he waits for his in-laws to arrive. He remembers the last time China experienced a deadly pandemic.

JAY GU: We went through, like, SARS. People knew how these things could be dangerous if you do not pay attention.

MCCLURG: SARS is a severe respiratory illness that wreaked havoc in 2003. It killed more than 700 people around the globe. Both SARS and the new disease are part of the same virus family. The doctors say that, as of right now, at least, the new bug doesn't appear to be as deadly as SARS.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.


Lesley McClurg