SFO raises health alert over swine flu

April 27, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
The borders are still open between the United States and Mexico despite concerns about the swine flu. Airlines have not cancelled any flights, but officials will be watching for passengers who have flu symptoms.

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The Air Transport Association says there are more than 2,000 flights from Mexico into the U.S. every day and an equal number headed from the U.S. into Mexico. Yet, there are still no travel restrictions in place, only a warning from the CDC, to SFO at least, to be alert.

The Centers for Disease Control announced Monday morning that it recommends Americans avoid non-essential travel to Mexico. San Francisco International Airport also raised its health alert level to try to prevent the spread of the swine flu.

The alert has not gone as far as an advisory. The goal is for travelers and airport personnel to be on alert and aware of the swine flu risk.

"We have a level-three alert from CDC, for travel coming in from Mexico. There is a five-stage alert and we're in the middle of that right now. As far as level three, we are making no changes to our protocol as far as screening passengers at this time," said SFO spokesman Mike McCarron.

"If they should notice anyone ill, or apparently ill, they refer them to CDC quarantine staff here at the airport. They'll do an interview if they think there's an issue. They'll take them to the quarantine facility at the airport and contact local public health, San Mateo County Public Health," he explained.

The quarantine facility at SFO is a small room. In the case of an ill passenger, health officials might go there or the passenger might be picked up in an ambulance.

McCarron says while awareness will be heightened, it will otherwise be business as usual at SFO, other than the CDC paying special attention to passengers coming off flights from Mexico. So far, airlines have not cancelled any flights to Mexico and there are no signs that passengers are cancelling.

"People seem to be continuing with their trips," said Carol Feiner, who runs the airport travel agency at SFO. "A couple of people that came in today to ask questions are continuing on to Mexico today."

Passengers felt like they could shed their masks when they landed at SFO after wearing them during the entire flight from Mexico. Passengers said the military handed them out at the Mexican airport, telling people to put them on to be safe.

Still, some passengers at the airport were worried Monday.

"She's flying to Mexico," Elias Gutierrez told ABC 7, talking about his mother. "She is worried about the thing that's happening."

"I think, I think twice before I go to Mexico right now, if I have to go into the city to visit somebody," said his mother Yolanda, who plans to fly into the city only to change planes.

Pepe Reyes says not everyone in the Latino community is so calm. The San Jose DJ says listeners keep calling 92.3 to talk about swine flu. He had the Mexican consulate on as a guest to give advice to his worried listeners.

Other passengers like Marcia Christy were less hindered.

"What else can you? We can't stop our lives," she said. "We'll just try to wash our hands."

A wildly-different scenario played out in other international airports.

In Hong Kong, officials actively screened passengers with thermo-imaging monitors. Any passenger whose temperature registered too high was immediately pulled aside and tested for the virus.

Meanwhile, European Union health officials urged citizens to postpone all non-essential travel to the United States and Mexico because of the swine flu. Some countries indicated they would quarantine passengers showing symptoms of the virus.

"It's basically identical to what we went through with SARS and Avian Flu, almost to a T. In fact, a lot of our lessons learned came out of those previous things and we're putting them into practice right now," McCarron said.

SFO officials say they have been told that no thermo scans will be used in the United States. They say they will screen passengers coming in from Mexico, looking for illness. Passengers may be asked to step aside, questioned, or taken to a quarantine or isolation room if necessary. This is the exact same protocol used during past SARS and Avian Flu outbreaks.

AAA said Monday that it is monitoring the swine flu situation closely, but adds it is too early to tell how much of a risk it might pose to travelers.

Several airlines are allowing travelers headed to or from Mexico to change or cancel their flights without paying penalty fees. The airlines include American, United, Continental, US Airways, Mexicana and Air Canada.

None of the airlines have cancelled flights.

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