Airport screening mayhem marks another fail on coronavirus

Travelers returning on flights from Europe say they are being made to wait for hours in close quarters at US airports to get screened for coronavirus.

President Donald Trump has been rightly blasted for his combination of lies and incompetence when it comes to the handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Two weeks ago he claimed that the threat posed by Covid-19 was the Democrats’ new “hoax.” His administration also alarmingly delayed conducting widespread testing of Americans for the virus.

Now, the jaw-dropping images from numerous US airports on Saturday night mark yet another sorry milestone in Trump’s failure to address this pandemic.

Words alone can’t adequately describe the jarring scenes at airports in Chicago, Dallas, and New York, where people returning to the United States from European countries affected by coronavirus were forced to stand for hours at a time virtually on top of each other. These crowds come amid non-stop calls for social distancing from healthcare experts and even Trump himself.

It resembled something from a horror movie or some dystopian universe. But it was not — it took place right here, in the United States.

What caused this pile-up of people? Simple: A lack of planning by Trump and his administration.

On Saturday night, the Trump administration’s new “enhanced entry screenings” program went into effect to screen US citizens and permanent residents returning from Europe for the coronavirus. (Other travelers have mostly been barred from entering the country.)

Passengers must provide medical history and be checked for symptoms, such as a fever. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, former President Barack Obama implemented a similar testing program for people arriving to the US from areas infected with the virus. (Trump in 2014 called Obama’s Ebola airport testing program a “joke” despite no reports of people stuck on line for hours).

If there had been proper planning by the Trump administration, protocols could have been put in place to ensure a smooth functioning and health conscious way to effect this new policy. Instead, it was a sea of confusion that potentially resulted in more Americans contracting the virus.

Ann Lewis Schmidt, a passenger returning from Iceland, told CNN that after arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, passengers first waited in a line to have passports checked and then went on a second line to undergo medical screening.

It “seems backwards, as if someone had a fever, they should have been never allowed in these lines for four hours,” Schmidt said, adding that passengers were in “very close quarters.”

“So if we didn’t have the virus before, we have a great chance of getting it now!”

At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, travelers were also forced to stand in long, cramped lines with some waiting up to seven hours to be screened as people around them were “coughing and sneezing.”

Over at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, passengers said there was a shortage of government forms, no hand sanitizer and shared pens.

Alarmingly, at least three passengers screened at JFK on Saturday were sent to hospitals because of their symptoms, raising concerns about the virus being possibly spread to others who were trapped waiting on the long lines in tight quarters.

Potentially worse, another passenger, Kimberley Harris, told CNN that she saw passengers at the Dallas airport skipping the long medical testing line and just getting in lines where passengers didn’t have to be screened, undermining the protection protocols.

These disturbing conditions prompted Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to tweet Saturday night.

“The crowds & lines O’Hare are unacceptable & need to be addressed immediately,” he wrote. “These crowds are waiting to get through customs which is under federal jurisdiction.”

The governor called on Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “to do something NOW.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, also tweeted his concerns.

“Admin was unprepared after Presidential ban on travel from Europe,” he wrote.

In response to the backlash, Trump tweeted: “We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports. Pardon the interruptions and delays, we are moving as quickly as possible, but it is very important that we be vigilant and careful. We must get it right. Safety first!”

Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan issued a statement acknowledging that the “wait times experienced yesterday at some locations were unacceptable.”

He said CBP “continually adjusts its resources as needed” and would continue to do so.

“With this national emergency, there will unfortunately be times of disruption and increased processing times for travelers. CBP is working around the clock to minimize these inconveniences.”

The question, though, is why wasn’t the Trump administration prepared to properly implement its own policy? It obviously understood that thousands of citizens and permanent residents would be returning to the United States. The administration should have set up a system that was efficient and effective, and should have ensured social distancing of people waiting for hours on line, instead of risking infecting healthy people.

The outbreak of an infectious disease, be it the coronavirus or Ebola which happened under Obama’s watch, tests a president’s leadership and ability to handle a crisis.

So far, Trump has failed that test. And worse, his administration’s failure to prepare for its own “enhanced entry screening” program may actually result in infecting healthy Americans with the potentially deadly Covid-19.

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