Fever alarms, paranoia as masked passengers fly from China

Cathy Bussewitz, Joseph Pisani And Rachel Lerman

NEW YORK (AP) – In Bangladesh’s biggest airport, workers held up digital thermometers to passengers’ heads. A beeping alarm sounded as a passenger walking through a thermal scanner registered a fever.

On a plane ride from Shanghai to New York, nobody spoke for fear of spreading germs as flight attendants donning face masks served drinks to similarly-clad passengers.

Airline passengers making their way to and from China are navigating an eerie scene as officials around the globe work to contain a new, fast-spreading coronavirus. China has reported more than 9,000 cases and the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a global emergency.

Several major airlines, including Air France, British Airways and Scandinavian Airlines have suspended service to China. But US-based United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are still flying, though they have curtailed operations as passengers cancelled trips.

The pilots’ union at American Airlines sued on Thursday to block the carrier from flying to China because of the virus.

Sri Lankan health officials and military personnel monitor passengers through a thermal scanner at the Katunayake International airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

One woman who flew 14 hours from Shanghai to New York changed her white face mask every four hours to make sure it was clean.

“It was a bit gloomy,” said Joe Chang, a tech worker who flew from Shanghai to San Francisco after visiting his family for the Lunar New Year.

In some cases, fear is turning into paranoia. On one flight headed to China from Amsterdam, passengers protested when they realised a man from Wuhan – the epicentre of the outbreak – was on the plane, said Chris Van Heesch, a 50-year old from the Netherlands. In the end, he was allowed to fly.

At Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Bangladesh, passengers arriving from Beijing on Wednesday walked through thermal scanners to check for fevers.

As their disembodied faces appeared on a nearby screen, most of their heads looked green, indicating a normal body temperature, but the machine beeped loudly when one man’s forehead appeared red.

He was shuttled to the side where a woman took his temperature with a device shaped like a bar code scanner. “One hundred one degrees,” she called out.

Meanwhile, an airport worker pushed health cards into departing passengers’ hands urging them to contact health authorities if they have a fever within 14 days of arrival.

“The number of infected people in Beijing is relatively low – over 100. But it is much higher in Wuhan,” said Mohammed Raihan, a Bangladeshi student who attends Capital Medical University in Beijing.

“That’s why I’ve come back. All the schools and universities have been shut down indefinitely.”

A similar scene played out in Kathmandu, Nepal, where masked passengers were greeted with large, illustrated signs imploring them to visit the health desk if they have symptoms including high fever, muscle pain, headaches or a haemorrhaging.

Health experts said on Thursday there’s significant evidence the virus is spreading among people in China and were concerned that in other countries – including the United States, France, Japan, Germany, Canada, South Korea and Vietnam – where there have also been isolated cases of human-to-human transmission.

The new virus comes from a large family of coronaviruses, some of which cause nothing worse than a cold.

Flight cleaning crews are taking extra steps to protect themselves. Crews already fully disinfect arm rests, window shades and other hard surfaces after international flights on United Airlines.

But if a plane carried a passenger with suspicious symptoms, the cleaning crew will don face shields, goggles and long-sleeved gowns while they clean with a disinfectant approved by the Centers for Disease Control, said United spokesman Charlie Hobart.

A plane would be taken out of service and fumigated if a passenger had a confirmed case of coronavirus, he said.

John F Kennedy International Airport resembled a hospital corridor where everyone from passengers to luggage handlers wore face masks.

Jarvan Lee, a 25-year-old student from New York, came to JFK to pick up family friends arriving from Beijing wearing a black mouth cover with two air filters.

He bought it five days ago from Amazon for USD30 and plans to wear it at the mall or anywhere else he’s around a lot of people. “I’m worried,” he said of the virus.

Helen Lewis, who pushes passengers in wheelchairs to their flights, began wearing gloves last Sunday and asked coughing passengers to cover up their mouths.

“You don’t know who you’re carrying,” said the 62-year-old from New York.

CEO of Chicago-based Top Secret Toys Steve Rehkemper said he’s suspending all trips to China for now.

As soon as he arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland on January 14, he and all the other travelers had to have their temperatures taken.

‘’I didn’t get too excited, I knew I didn’t have a temperature,” he added.

Bill Chen, who arrived in San Francisco from Shanghai on Wednesday, said his temperature was quickly screened at the Shanghai airport before he departed. He also filled out a health questionnaire that asked if he had travelled to Wuhan or had any contact with someone who had been in the city.

“I feel a little bit sorry for people travelling on the plane,” Chen said. “People have to be nervous in some way.”