Newark Customs Agent: We're Not Prepared for Ebola

A federal U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent who works on the front lines at Newark International Airport says customs officers at the tri-state hub lack appropriate training and equipment to handle potential Ebola cases.

"They are assuring the public everything is being done, but it is not," the agent told NBC 4 New York, adding there are currently no doctors or CDC personnel assigned to the airport for when flights with passengers from West Africa arrive. 

The agent's statements come as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new screening and security measures would be implemented this weekend at the five airports, including Newark, that account for 95 percent of travelers from Ebola-ridden countries.

The agent expressed concern such measures had yet to be implemented. The agent says confusion reigned there Saturday when a passenger believed to be Liberian on an arriving flight was vomiting.

The plane went to the gate and most passengers were allowed to enter the customs hall, the agent said. Federal officials took the sick passenger and a companion to a hospital, where they were evaluated. It was determined the sick passenger showed symptoms consistent with a minor, treatable condition, not Ebola. The companion was asymptomatic.

The scare was real, however, the agent said.

"A panic ensued," according to the agent. Airport managers went on the public address system and asked the passengers to separate themselves because they were mixed in with passengers from other flights who had not been exposed to the vomiting passenger, the agent said.

"It was a disaster," the agent said.

In cases of a low-level bomb scare, the plane is parked away from the terminal, the agent said. That wasn't the case with the sick passenger's flight, which landed amid intensifying global fears over Ebola.

On Wednesday, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the United States died at a hospital in Dallas, Texas. Another patient from the U.S. was transported to a Dallas hospital the same day.

Sen. Chuck Schumer has said it is past time better protocols be implemented at the five airports -- Newark and John F. Kennedy International Airport among them -- that account for 95 percent of travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and New Guinea to the United States.

Shortly after NBC 4 New York spoke with Schumer, the CDC announced new measures would be implemented at Newark, JFK and the other three airports, which include, Dulles International Airport in Virginia, Chicago O'Hare International Airport in Illinois and Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia.

About 150 passengers from the three infected countries arrive at those airports each day, according to the CDC. The new measures call for enhanced screening with targeted questions, temperature-taking and getting contact information from travelers in the event the CDC needs to reach them. Passengers who have fevers or report contact with Ebola patients in West Africa will be further interviewed and additional action will be taken when appropriate, the agency said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more personnel will be in place at airports, but it will still be the custom border agents on the front line looking for sick passengers. On-site CDC public health officers will then further interview potentially sick passengers.

The new measures will be implemented this weekend.

The customs agent who spoke with NBC 4 New York said such measures should have been in place sooner. Passengers from West Africa should also be screened for symptoms at the gateways, well before entering terminals, the agent added.

"It's a simple thing where we just need to focus and take extra precautions," the agent said. "I am speaking out because I care. It's just a matter of doing it."

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said agents and officers are trained to look for overt signs of illness, and protocols are in place to try to prevent the spread of Ebola. The spokesman said customs officials are working closely with the CDC to improve screening at the five major hubs for people from West Africa traveling to the U.S.

Follow Jonathan Dienst on Twitter @jonathan4NY

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