As the COVID-19 virus spreads through America, incoming travelers returning to the U.S. received a less-than-stellar welcome at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on Saturday.
Upon landing, passengers were forced into overcrowded lines for hours after receiving vague updates on the coronavirus outbreak.
In an interview with NBC News, Beth Kander called the airport a “madhouse” after returning from France, as she and her fellow passengers had been made aware of the screenings only an hour before landing.
“When we were an hour out from landing, the captain made an announcement, and it created a lot of anxiety,” Kander said. “He said you will not be allowed to get off a plane, a U.S. official will board and there will be a coronavirus update.”
According to Kander, no official had boarded the plane. The captain reported that information “keeps shifting” and assured the passengers that they would receive more information after deplaning.
However, the passengers were never told directly what the screening process would entail or how long it would it take. Instead, they were required to fill out forms and wait in crowded customs line before receiving pamphlets about self-quarantine. The passengers were told to “stay put” for 14 days” and provide their contact information. According to Kander, there was no separate area designated for people who may have been immunocompromised.
As Europe continues to lock down popular tourist destinations in the wake of the virus, American citizens have been forced to cut their vacations short and return to the States. While these airport screenings are meant to limit further spread of the virus, they go against the CDC’s call for “social distancing.”
“I think the most dangerous part of my trip was being in that airport with all those people in the five hours that we had to wait,” Kander said.
The chaotic screenings have also garnered criticism from Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, who referred to the overcrowded lines as “unacceptable.” Pritzker told NBC that, unless there is a significant increase in Customs and Border Protection staff, the problem will only get worse as more and more Americans return home in fear that all travel between the U.S. and Europe would be cut off.
“Today, it’s going to be even worse,” Pritzker said on Sunday. “There are larger numbers of flights with more people coming and they seem completely unprepared.”
According to Chad Wolf, Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the DHS is attempting to add additional screening capacity.
“I understand this is very stressful,” Wolf said. “In these unprecedented times, we ask for your patience. It currently takes ~60 seconds for medical professionals to screen each passenger. We will be increasing capacity, but the health and safety of the American public is first & foremost.”
In addition to O’Hare, incoming travelers have also reported overcrowded screenings in New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth.
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