SEA-TAC INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — Sea-Tac is one of 20 airports in the United States that has a CDC quarantine station set up in case an incoming passenger is suspected of having a potentially infectious disease.
Two Americans who became infected with the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa are now quarantined in an Atlanta hospital. But there is concern that other passengers traveling from infected areas of the world might cause the disease to spread in the United States.
About 10 percent of the passengers at Sea-Tac travel internationally. That’s part of the reason the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set up a special quarantine area at the airport. If they spot someone with a potentially infectious illness, they can be isolated immediately.
Janny Rivers takes precautions when she flies. She doesn’t want other passengers to get her sick.
“That’s what I have a scarf for, to wrap around my face,” she says.
Michael Judy knows germs can spread in close quarters like a plane, but he tries not to think about it.
“I guess I’m just not as worried about catching something as other people. You see some people wearing masks, but I’m not worried myself,” he says.
But coming down with a cold is one thing. Getting a deadly disease like Ebola is another.
“It scares me to death,” says Rivers of the Ebola outbreak in Africa. “They shouldn’t bring them to the United States, in my opinion. I mean, look at the MRSA outbreak. It was nothing, it was rare when it first came out. And now, they say it’s living in everybody.”
Health officials say Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluid, so there shouldn’t be concern of the disease spreading.
“If you’re sitting next to someone who has Ebola and they’re coughing and sneezing, the odds of you catching it are extremely small,” says Dr. Tim Geisbert. “It’s not really transmitted that way.”
The CDC says both airlines and customs and immigration officials are trained to spot passengers who may be ill. Sea-Tac is one of twenty airports that has a quarantine station, where passengers can be isolated from others if there is a concern.
“We usually board the plane if we’re onsite,” says CDC supervisory medical officer Francisco Alvarado-Ramy. “We board with personal protective equipment. We go to the patient, and ask questions about symptoms they have.”
Since 3.5 million passengers came to Sea-Tac from other countries last year, Judy is glad to hear about the quarantine station and the plan to protect passengers if someone sick does fly here.
“Oh definitely, that takes a lot of pressure off my mind.”
The CDC did not respond to our questions about how many passengers they’ve had to isolate at Sea-Tac. But the medical staff at the quarantine station respond to concerns about passengers that come into any ports in Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Montana, as well as some of the Canadian border crossings.