Ebola screenings begin at O’Hare International Airport

Hazmat suits are necessary for anyone who comes in contact with an Ebola patient. Courtesy of California National Guard
Hazmat suits are necessary for anyone who comes in contact with an Ebola patient. Courtesy of the California National Guard.

By Courtney Dillard

Chicago is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst as the threat of Ebola looms. Starting Thursday, all travelers from the three “hotspots” in Africa –Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—will receive screenings at O’Hare International Airport.

Preventing the spread of Ebola starts at O’Hare, officials said. Up to 25 people from those three countries come through O’Hare daily, according to Dr. Bechara Choucair, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

In a meeting Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Health laid out a two-part contingency plan to prevent the spread of Ebola in the Chicago area. The plan involves the screenings at O’Hare and preparing area hospitals to receive patients.

“Disease knows no citizenship and no borders,” said Victor M. Gonzalez, a member of the Chicago Board of Health. “Any infectious disease is less than 24 hours away.”

All O’Hare passengers from the three West African countries will fill out a questionnaire when they pass through Customs and Border Protection and have their temperatures checked during a secondary evaluation. Travelers who answer yes to high-risk questions on the survey or have high temperatures will receive a medical evaluation in O’Hare’s quarantine unit.

If travelers test positive for symptoms, they will immediately be dispatched to Presence Resurrection Medical Center for evaluation, which is about five miles from the airport. The Ebola test takes 24 to 36 hours. If Ebola is ruled out, travelers can continue to their final destination.

Midway International Airport, which only receives international flights from Canada and Mexico, is not part of the screening program at this time.

The Chicago Board of Health hopes that the city will be able to appoint one hospital to handle all potential Ebola cases. As part of the current contingency plan, it will likely be Resurrection.

“What we are seeking in the City of Chicago is a designated hospital that can have the capacity to care for these patients for days or weeks,” said Dr. Julie Morita, chief medical officer of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “The goal would be for this hospital to have communication with Nebraska Medical Center and Emory University Hospital.” Both Emory and Nebraska have successfully treated Ebola patients.

While Ressurection is closer to O’Hare, Rush University Medical Center also is being considered as a designated hospital. In 2012, Rush opened the McCormick Foundation Center for Advanced Emergency Response. The new emergency center has the ability to isolate airflows to seal off pathogens.

The second part of the contingency plan involves all Chicago-area hospitals and health care providers in the city, including paramedics.

“We have provided updated training for our Emergency Medical Services staff. We want to make sure that our first responders are aware of proper safety procedures,” said Choucair. “We’ve also modified our 911 scripts so when people pick up the phone and dial 911, there are questions specifically asking for travel history.

Two of the nurses at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas who treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the U.S., have tested positive for the virus, so the safety of Chicago healthcare workers is top of mind.

“This is an issue that has definitely been on our radar,” said Choucair. “We are working with every hospital in Chicago, connecting with them on a regular basis, making sure that they have the right guidelines and training opportunities developed through the Centers for Disease Control.”

All Chicago-area hospitals should be prepared for someone to come in with Ebola, say Board of Health officials. Dr. Carolyn Lopez, president of the Chicago Board of Health, expressed concerns about whether smaller hospitals will be ready to accommodate Ebola patients.

“Sick people end up where they end up. They don’t think, ‘Oh it’s the regional hospital.’ They end up where they live,” said Lopez.

Despite the increasing anxiety over Ebola, Choucair urges Chicagoans to stay calm. “I want to reassure everybody that the risk is very low, but we are as prepared as we can be,” said Choucair. “We feel good about where we are when it comes to preparedness.”

To view a timeline of Ebola in the U.S., click here