Fresh off his flight from Europe, Joseph Watson walked off the plane and into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Saturday fully expecting to undergo a rigorous health screening before being allowed back into the country.
He arrived at Sea-Tac a day after President Donald Trump announced that in an attempt to curb the novel coronavirus’ rampant spread, U.S. citizens and residents returning from certain European countries in the past 14 days would be screened upon arrival at one of 13 designated airports.
Trump’s announcement resulted in chaos last weekend at airports in Dallas, Chicago and other cities, as travelers from Europe reported encountering long lines, severe crowding and hours-long delays between the arrival gate and baggage claim because of health-screening procedures that were put in place at some of the hubs.
But this, some travelers say, was not the case at Sea-Tac, which is one of the designated hubs.
“I didn’t even get asked where I was coming from. No medical check, screening of my temperature, questions about symptoms,” said Watson, who had spent time in France and Germany — both of which are on the Department of Homeland Security’s list of European countries that require travelers to undergo health screening upon their return to the United States.
When Watson asked a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent about screening procedures, he says the agent just shrugged.
“There were definitely people sneezing, coughing, showing symptoms of flu or COVID-19, whatever it was,” Watson says. “It’s a concern that I wasn’t even screened at all. I’m not showing any signs, but I could still be transmitting it to other people.”
Watson has since taken it upon himself to start a 14-day self-quarantine period, but it appears that his “disturbing” experience at Sea-Tac was not a fluke.
Watson’s account of little-to-no health screening upon arrival was corroborated by 13 other travelers who spoke (or wrote in) to The Seattle Times this week, after flying into Sea-Tac from Europe on different flights over three days spanning March 14-16.
Their accounts sit in stark contrast to the backdrop of screening measures the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed travelers from Europe would be subjected to when Trump announced travel restrictions that took effect on March 13.
According to a CBP statement about the screening measures, “CBP officers use a combination of traveler history records, officer questioning and observation, and self-declarations to identify travelers requiring enhanced health screening.”
Yet neither CBP nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nor DHS could explain why travelers like Watson weren’t screened. When asked about the oversight by The Seattle Times, each agency pointed to one of the other two it alleged was responsible for overseeing coronavirus-screening procedures.
What is supposed to happen?
CBP and DHS are in charge of the first line of screening at the 13 airports designated to receive passengers arriving in the United States from travel-restricted countries.
According to a statement from CBP and a DHS news release issued last Friday, the screening process at all hubs is supposed to include standard processing — passports and visa checks — at customs first. Thereafter, “CBP will refer each traveler to Department of Homeland Security contract medical personnel, who will conduct a health assessment,” CBP said in its statement. This health assessment is supposed to include questions about a traveler’s medical history and any current symptoms.
If DHS medical personnel finds that a traveler requires further screening, the traveler is referred to CDC personnel, who will conduct it. According to DHS’s screening protocols, travelers like Watson should have received a health assessment, written information on COVID-19 safe practices and directions to self-quarantine at home.
Watson said he didn’t see any medical personnel and was given no documents or instructions.
Surprised, he even offered up his recent travel history and asked the CBP officer if he should quarantine himself at home, in part, because his wife is 34 weeks pregnant. All he got from the CBP officer was a shrug, Watson says.
“It just worries me that my asymptomatic transmission or anyone else’s who doesn’t have my wherewithal [to self-quarantine] could be really hurting people,” Watson said. “It’s frightening.”
What seems to be happening
Other travelers who spoke to The Seattle Times had similar accounts of the lack of health-screening procedures at Sea-Tac. Some say they filled out forms inquiring about their health and travel history, one family said it was randomly pulled aside for temperature checks while deplaning, but none of the 14 described health-screening procedures anywhere near as thorough as the multiple-level checks that DHS outlined in its news release.
Seattle residents Kara Wallace and Reid DeGooyer arrived at Sea-Tac on Monday after 15 days of travel throughout Ireland, the Netherlands and France. On the plane they filled out two forms, one that asked about general health and travel history and one asking for contact and emergency contact information.
Passengers exited the plane in groups of 15, and upon entering the airport, most passengers were directed to hand in their forms and “just keep walking” through one of two lanes. They were not stopped or questioned at all. Unidentified staff casually accepted their forms from people in their lane without inspecting them, Wallace and DeGooyer said. At customs, DeGooyer and Wallace said they were asked the usual questions about where and why they traveled, and then moved on to baggage claim with no further screening.
“We kept thinking, ‘Maybe there’s something that’s coming later?’ We kept waiting for [something],” Wallace said, “but that was it.”
“It was pretty worrisome,” DeGooyer agreed.
Like Watson, Wallace and DeGooyer have decided to self-quarantine even though they were not instructed to do so at Sea-Tac.
Other passengers who arrived from Europe on Monday described undergoing even less screening than Wallace and DeGooyer received. Some slightly more, including Kaleb Patterson, who arrived with his parents on a Monday afternoon flight from the United Kingdom. (Screening for U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning to the United States from the United Kingdom began Monday at the 13 designated airports.)
Javier O’Neill said he was horrified when he heard that his brother, who arrived at Sea-Tac on Monday after visiting O’Neill in Denmark, told him that he was not screened at all.
O’Neill said his brother, who preferred not to be named, had to fly through Toronto and Denver, where he spent hours waiting in crowded rooms in which he and other travelers were told they were being diverted to airports where they could be screened. Some passengers, he said, waited up to 4.5 hours, according to O’Neill’s brother.
But when O’Neill’s brother arrived at Sea-Tac, he was not screened at all.
“After spending all these hours waiting potentially putting himself at risk, he finally got to Seattle, and by the time he got there he never got screened. Not at all,” O’Neill said. “The fact that he was able to get through three different airports and never be screened is just horrifying.”
Patterson and his parents filled out a form on the plane that asked for their travel history, passport numbers and whether they were experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19. They also filled in a second form requesting contact information.
Upon arrival at Sea-Tac, Patterson said medical contractors from American Medical Response, an emergency medical-services company, were present on the jet bridge and seemingly randomly pulled his mother aside for a temperature check. Patterson’s mother had not reported any symptoms on her health-assessment form, and the form was only collected after she had already been pulled aside, he said.
The contact information forms were never collected, Patterson said.
After realizing that Patterson and his father were traveling with his mother, they were also pulled aside to have their temperature taken. Patterson estimated that about a third of the passengers had their temperatures checked.
After the temperature check, Patterson said he passed through customs, where he was not asked any questions. He then received a document with basic information about COVID-19 and a written directive to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Out of the 14 travelers who spoke to The Seattle Times, Patterson and his parents were the only people who had their temperature taken upon arrival.
What do authorities say about this lack of screening?
None of the three agencies contacted for this article could explain why COVID-19 health screenings at Sea-Tac do not appear to conform with DHS’ previously announced screening protocols.
The CDC responded to The Seattle Times’ query by saying via email that the DHS had taken over the operational efforts for these screening procedures.
However, the DHS public affairs office directed inquiries about screening to the CBP. After speaking with the CBP staff at Sea-Tac, a CBP spokesperson based out of national headquarters released a statement saying, “We don’t actually perform the screening. Our role is facilitator. We have to refer you to the CDC to talk about their guidelines about how the screening is being performed.”
Sea-Tac itself says it has taken precautions around the airport to help keep travelers safe.
In a news conference Tuesday, Sea-Tac Managing Director Lance Lyttle said the airport has introduced enhanced disinfection protocols, added hand-sanitizing stations and increased public-health messaging. Additionally, TSA is now allowing travelers to carry up to 12oz-sized bottles of hand sanitizer.
If screening procedures at Sea-Tac begin to cause crowds, Lyttle said the airport has coordinated with CBP and the CDC to be able to hold passengers on airlines to meter the number of passengers coming through the airport and avoid crowding.
“These are incredibly uncertain times,” said Port of Seattle Commission President Peter Steinbrueck. “Our priority is keeping staff and passengers safe.
Wallace said that while it was nice not to have to go through a chaotic process like what is happening at other airports, she was disappointed and worried about the lack of screening. “We just want to do the responsible thing,” she said. “This [experience] did not instill any confidence in how this is being handled.”