Missoula airport terminal

That sneezer in the seat next to you as you fly into Missoula?

Chances are next to none that he or she has Ebola, but that doesn’t mean airport and health officials aren’t worried about it.

Ebola has been “the major topic of conversation at the airport the last couple of weeks,” Missoula International Airport director Cris Jensen told the airport authority board on Wednesday, adding, “In general, it’s probably taken more of our time than we’d like.”

Jesse Johnson, chief of public safety, said the airport has the Missoula City-County Health Department on speed dial.

Should a passenger on an incoming flight to Missoula exhibit any Ebola-like symptoms – fever, headache, vomiting, stomach and/or muscle pain, unexplained bruising or bleeding – a newly developed protocol will kick in.

If flight attendants notice an ill person they're instructed to ask a few key questions. Has he or she been sick for a while? Is there evidence of a fever? And, most pointedly, has the passenger been to Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone recently?

“If the person says yes, they would have fallen through the cracks,” said Johnson.

A traveler with an elevated temperature isn’t even allowed to board a plane in the three affected West African nations. All passengers who do get on are screened again once they get to one of the five U.S. airports to which travelers from the African nations are limited – Kennedy in New York, Newark Liberty in New Jersey, Washington’s Dulles, Chicago’s O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta.

Customs and Border Protection agents check them for signs of illness, question them and take their temperatures. If there are hints of Ebola, the passengers are detained.

“There’s definitely a lot of checks in place before they even get to Missoula,” Johnson said.

Word of an ill Missoula-bound passenger who has been in the specific West African nations would be radioed ahead to the control tower, which would in turn notify the public safety office.

“We are going to call the health department,” Johnson said. “Right now the health department has a 24-hour on-call infectious disease nurse who is prepared to come out if called.”

In reality, if there ever were to be an Ebola patient coming to Missoula it wouldn’t be on a commercial flight.

“It would be a private company that had been tasked to do it,” Johnson said. “We have not gotten to that and hopefully never will.”

***

As the Ebola threat grew earlier this fall, Johnson said he scanned the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website for information that pertained to airports and assembled it into a two-page flier. It’s posted on the airport website and was noticed by Spokane International Airport, which requested a copy for its own use.

“That flier has now gone throughout the United States and is being used by airports everywhere. In fact, I’ve had calls from airports in New York City that wanted our flier,” Jensen told the board, quipping, “They wanted the Word file so they could easily plagiarize it and take all the credit for it.”

Johnson said airlines and Transportation Security Agency personnel in Missoula have copies of the flier to hand out to curious boarding passengers.

Among the tidbits it contains: The risk of a traveler infected with Ebola spreading it to airline passengers or crew is low. That’s because Ebola spreads by direct contact with infected body fluids – blood, saliva, urine, feces, semen or vomit – and not through the air as the flu virus does.

Johnson has joined hundreds of airport safety officials from across the nation on four teleconferences in the past three weeks. The last one featured Dr. Russell Petrak, an infectious disease specialist from Illinois.

Petrak expanded the definition of “direct contact” to include a 3-foot area where a sneeze or a cough might infect a fellow passenger.

Protocols at the Missoula airport have been developed in collaboration with fire and health department officials. Johnson said a tabletop exercise is planned for November to which those entities and others will be invited, including emergency services, fixed-base operations at the airport and perhaps the Forest Service.

“We already deal with a lot of this type of stuff,” Jensen pointed out. “When we have people who are ill, it’s not uncommon for somebody to, say, vomit in the terminal. Our staff’s already trained to deal with those types of things.”

“We’ve been through SARS and swine flu or H1N1 – a lot of different things that are probably more deadly or kill a lot more people each year than Ebola has,” Jensen said. “But it’s certainly a topic of conversation in the media right now, so we’re responding to it.”

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