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Biometric tech usage protocols should be evaluated during Ebola airport screenings


Due to the dangers that the Ebola epidemic represents to the United States, health protocols focused on airport screening should consider when biometric technologies should be employed at airports.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs & Border Protection (CBP) this week began new layers of entry screening at five U.S. airports that receive over 94 percent of travelers from the Ebola-affected nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. CDC has sent staff to New York’s JFK International Airport, along with Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta international airports.

CDC Director Tom Frieden stated: “We work to continuously increase the safety of Americans. We believe these new measures will further protect the health of Americans, understanding that nothing we can do will get us to absolute zero risk until we end the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson noted: “CBP personnel will continue to observe all travelers entering the United States for general overt signs of illnesses at all U.S. ports of entry and these expanded screening measures will provide an additional layer of protection to help ensure the risk of Ebola in the United States is minimized. CBP, working closely with CDC, will continue to assess the risk of the spread of Ebola into the United States, and take additional measures, as necessary, to protect the American people.”

The CDC has devised an elaborate protocol to screen travelers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in special areas. Trained CBP staff will observe them for signs of illness, ask them a series of health and exposure questions and provide health information for Ebola and reminders to monitor themselves for symptoms. Trained medical staff will also take their temperature with a non-contact thermometer. If the travelers have fever, symptoms or the health questionnaire reveals possible Ebola exposure, they will be evaluated by a CDC quarantine station public health officer. The public health officer will again take a temperature reading and make a public health assessment.

Travelers, who after this assessment, are determined to require further evaluation or monitoring will be referred to the appropriate public health authority. Travelers from these countries who have neither symptoms, fever, nor a known history of exposure will receive health information for self-monitoring. Entry screening is part of a layered process that includes exit screening and standard public health practices such as patient isolation and contact tracing in countries with Ebola outbreaks.

But according to protocols, screening occurs only after passport review. Procedural details however are vague concerning whether passport review involves the use of fingerprint scanners for non-immigrant visitors who are not subject to waiver. If multiple, incoming visitors from Ebola-affected regions are placing their hands on a fingerprint scanner, then a risk, even if it is quite minimal, exists.

Ebola is not transmissible through the air or water, but the virus can be transmitted by way of fluids such as sweat by a person who is suffering symptoms. This might constitute a slight infection risk at ports-of-entry, since literally hundreds of visitors are required to submit for biometric scans.

While previous tests conducted by IEEE many years ago found that biometric security systems probably will not transmit sickness, since they often are less “germier” than common items such as doorknobs, risks still undoubtedly exist. Those previous studies found that E.coli outlasted staph bacteria on biometric devices, but that neither lasted long. More comforting, the tests postulated that the more a contaminated surface is touched, the cleaner the surface becomes.

By why subject travelers to potentially contaminated biometrics devices if it is not necessary? Hopefully, in the near future, CDC and CBP will clarify whether biometric scans for travelers will occur after at-risk, potentially sick travelers are identified and isolated from others at border control in-takes.

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