Travelers arriving from China at Newark Liberty International Airport will be screened for the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 100 people and sickened thousands of others in the world’s most populous country.
The federal Centers for Disease Control announced that it was beefing up staff at all 20 of its quarantine stations, including the one at Newark, to conduct the screenings in the effort to prevent the spread of the disease. Passengers will be screened on a rolling basis, officials announced.
Previously, screening for the virus had been taking place at just five airports, including JFK.
The CDC has also upgraded its travel advisory, warning Americans to avoid nonessential trips to China.
Despite the increased precautions, though, the federal health agency insisted risks remain low in the United States — where five people have tested positive for the disease, all of them passengers arriving from China. No fatalities have been reported.
“Right now there is no spread of this virus in our communities here at home,” said Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director. “This is why our current assessment is the immediate health risk to the public is low in our nation.”
Federal officials say they expect to see more cases, and the health agency continued to focus on identifying ill travelers returning from China, “so we can make sure they’re appropriately treated, so they don’t pass on this illness to others,” said the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonier.
At the same time, the agency is also looking to advise those returning from China about what to look out for.
“But also it’s an incredibly important opportunity for us to educate those returning travelers about the signs and symptoms of this novel coronavirus,” said Messonier, the director the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
A ‘prudent’ step
Officials and health experts in New Jersey welcomed the CDC’s actions.
“There is no question that Newark Liberty is one of the nation’s busiest airports with daily flights arriving from all over the world,” the state’s two U.S. senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, said in a joint statement. “We are pleased that the CDC has answered our repeated requests and included Newark Liberty in the agency’s response plan.”
Local doctors agreed that the enhanced screening was the right step.
“I think it’s prudent, number one, given the volume of visitors from China, or people from the United States or students that are visiting China, and coming back and forth,” said Dr. Glenn Fennelly, chair of the department of pediatrics and microbiology at Rutgers Medical School. “Some sort of checklist: Where have you been? Where have you visited?”
In addition to the 100 fatalities, the outbreak of the heretofore unknown virus has thus far produced upwards of 4,600 confirmed cases in China, with many new infections occurring outside of its origin in Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million on the Yangtze River in central China.
In the United States, besides the five confirmed cases — in California, Arizona, Illinois and Washington State — the CDC has logged 32 negative tests, with 73 more test results pending on samples taken in 26 states, including New Jersey. The state’s one completed test came back negative.
New Jersey has set up a 24-hour hotline for information on the disease, 800-222-1222, which is also the state’s poison control center. Because it’s cold and flu season, many people could show symptoms associated with the coronavirus, like fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.
CDC guidelines currently advise doctors to raise a red flag only if a suspected patient has been in contact with someone traveling from China.
Officials say that hospitals in New Jersey are set up to quarantine patients, if necessary.