US Coast Guard issues new protocols due to Ebola outbreak

A U.S. Coast Guard sector says it will contact ships that have recently been to Ebola-affected countries.
A U.S. Coast Guard sector says it will contact ships that have recently been to Ebola-affected countries.

A U.S. Coast Guard sector says it will contact ships that have recently been to Ebola-affected countries to ask whether passengers have symptoms of the virus before they are allowed into port.

The sector, which includes parts of New York and Connecticut, issued to the maritime community in Long Island Sound on Monday a bulletin that describes protocols being put into place due to the Ebola outbreak.

"We wanted to have those specific steps identified in advance so we've prepared the captains of these vessels doing business in our ports for the questions we're going to ask," said Capt. Edward J. Cubanski III, the sector commander.

The Coast Guard had issued a nationwide bulletin about Ebola in August, reminding vessels they are required to report if anyone on board was sick or had died within the last 15 days. Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Diaz said local commands can supplement that message. But he did not know of any other sector doing so.

There is no specific threat for Long Island Sound, Diaz added.

The Coast Guard is evaluating each vessel headed into any U.S. port to determine if it had visited an Ebola-affected country within its last five ports of call, according to the national bulletin.

If a vessel coming to the Long Island Sound area has, the Coast Guard will ask whether anyone on board is experiencing symptoms of Ebola, such as fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, cough, hiccups and sore throat.

If so, the Coast Guard will ask how many people are sick, when the symptoms started, whether they have been treated, if they have arranged for medical care and if they have been around anyone who is ill. It will also ask whether anyone plans to get on or off the ship once it gets to port.

Cubanski said his staff compiled the questions from various medical sources, so there would be one standardized list. He said he is sharing it with all of the local, state and federal partners he works with, and he thinks it could be useful to other Coast Guard commands.

"We always want to hope for the best and prepare for the worst," he said.

Ships headed to American ports are required to report illnesses or deaths from communicable diseases among passengers or crew members 15 days before they expect to arrive, according to the bulletin. It says there have been no reports of people infected with Ebola on any vessels operating in U.S. waters.

Diaz said the Coast Guard will work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to review each situation. The Coast Guard can restrict a vessel's movement or bar entry to better evaluate the situation, he added.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said he's pleased the Coast Guard is ensuring that passengers are not displaying symptoms of Ebola before ships are allowed to enter ports in New York and Connecticut.

President Barack Obama's administration has said it is considering whether to institute extra screening at airports to check passengers coming from Ebola-stricken countries. Health officials have said that might include checking travelers to see if they have fevers, then evaluating them further if they do.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the Obama administration would have more details on additional passenger screening measures within days. He said that even as the government works on expanded protocols, the White House remains "confident in the screening measures that are currently in place."

The administration has said it will not halt travel from affected countries.