US citizens returning from overseas say they are waiting hours for coronavirus screening at airports – CNN
(CNN) — As Americans are being urged to keep their distance from one another, travelers returning on flights from Europe say they are being made to wait for hours in close quarters at US airports to get screened for coronavirus.
Several travelers told CNN that when they arrived at airports in Dallas, Chicago and New York, they faced long lines and confusion.
President Donald Trump announced restrictions on entry into the US from 26 countries in Europe on Wednesday. The ban went into effect at midnight on Friday, but only after the original announcement sparked chaos at European airports as Americans sought ways to return home before it went into place.
Karen Rogers, a passenger returning from Paris by way of London told CNN Saturday night she had been waiting in line for at least five hours to be screened at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and was told she would have at least another hour to go.
CNN has reached out to O’Hare International Airport and US Customs and Border Protection but has not yet received a response.
‘Very close quarters’
Ann Lewis Schmidt, a passenger returning from Iceland, said the process in place at O’Hare has passengers “essentially go(ing) through customs twice.”
Passengers first must wait in line to have their passports checked and to turn in a declaration form and medical forms for those returning from Europe, South Korea, Iran and China, Schmidt said.
Then they are taken to a separate line to undergo a screening and temperature check.
Passengers are grouped together for hours during the process, Schmidt said.
“Seems backwards, as if someone had a fever, they should have been never allowed in these lines for four hours,” Schmidt told CNN.
“Very close quarters… So if we didn’t have the virus before, we have a great chance of getting it now!” Schmidt said.
Travelers who pass the screening are instructed to immediately self-quarantine at home and monitor their health according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention best practices, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Illinois governor calls on federal government to take action
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker reacted to the news of long lines by tweeting directly to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence saying, “The crowds & lines O’Hare are unacceptable & need to be addressed immediately. @realDonaldTrump @VP since this is the only communication medium you pay attention to — you need to do something NOW. These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction.”
Prtizker also told travelers he’s spoken with local officials and is working to get the federal government to resolve the issue. “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW,” he tweeted.
In a tweet, Chad Wolf, the acting homeland security secretary, acknowledged the long lines and the stress the passengers were feeling saying, “DHS is aware of the long lines for passengers who are undergoing increased medical screening requirements. Right now we are working to add additional screening capacity and working with the airlines to expedite the process.”
“I understand this is very stressful. In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience. It currently takes ~60 seconds for medical professionals to screen each passenger. We will be increasing capacity but the health and safety of the American public is first & foremost.”
Passengers told to share pens
Katelyn Deibler landed at JFK from Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday afternoon and told CNN it took her more than two hours to complete customs.
She says she was given two forms to fill out when she arrived.
“One was just name, passport number, flight number, seat, address, emergency contact, and details about your trip,” Deibler said.
The second form asked specific questions about symptoms and travel to coronavirus hot zones, she said.
The form instructs passengers to circle countries they visited in the last 14 days and asks if they’ve had any symptoms such as fever, coughing, or difficulty breathing, Deibler said.
But there were not enough copies for all the passengers on the flight and many had to wait for more forms to be handed out.
“They didn’t have pens and told us to share,” she said. “Which sounds like a great thing in the middle of the pandemic.”
Three taken to the hospital after screenings at JFK
Another traveler at JFK, Nick Carlin, also told CNN passengers were told to share pens. He said there was no hand sanitizer at JFK.
“It definitely was a little scattered and disorganized,” said Chris Nadolne, a passenger who arrived to JFK said. “I can see how people would start to get frustrated as the line got longer … no bathrooms nearby and no antibacterial around for people to use — unlike in the UK and Paris where it is everywhere.”
At least three passengers who underwent screenings at JFK International were sent to hospitals because of their symptoms, a source with knowledge of the CDC coronavirus screenings at JFK told CNN.
Frank Russo, the Port Director for Customs and Border Control at JFK said the average wait time for a health screening has been two hours. He says there are more than 50 emergency medical technicians on-duty supplementing the staff from the US Centers from Disease Control and Prevention.
CNN relayed to him what the passengers said about a lack of hand sanitizer.
He said that the terminals do have hand sanitizer and officers were instructing people on how to find it. He added that he has asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — which operates the airport — to install more dispensers in the areas where passengers are waiting.
Passengers were intermingling while waiting in lines
Upon landing at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Kimberly Harris told CNN she witnessed passengers who were in line for CDC screening for the coronavirus skip the line and join other international passengers who did not need to be screened.
Harris returned from Johannesburg, South Africa, by way of a connecting flight through London.
She says as she waited in customs she watched the line grow and wrap around the entire floor.
“It was difficult to tell where the line began and ended,” Harris said. “It almost (was) immediately evident that people who had to stay behind on the plane due to visiting a listed country were integrated into the line of the people who did not require additional screening.”
It took her three hours to make it through passport control and customs, she said.
Another passenger who arrived at DFW Sunday from Thailand by way of Doha described a similar scene. Matthew Thomas says the coronavirus screening line was not separated from the other international arrivals.
“(They were) right next to us,” he says. “We were crowded and there for hours.”
Neither Thomas or Harris required screenings.
“These federally mandated enhanced procedures are part of the effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” DFW said in a statement. “The necessary additional procedures may cause delays in processing through Customs but are of the utmost importance for the health and safety of everyone.”
CNN’s Alta Spells contributed to this report.