"I spent three or more hours in the most disgusting close contact with strangers that I've ever experienced."
That's what 21-year-old Californian Emma Swaim said about her Saturday night ordeal waiting in customs at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
DFW is one of 13 U.S. airports where international flights are being sent and returning travelers are undergoing special screening for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
That process produced hours-long waits for travelers like Swaim.
"Frankly, I don't feel well," she said, now back at her parents' Orange County home, self-quarantined in her bedroom. She says she was fine when she left Paris, where she was on a study-abroad trip.
"People would cough and I would feel it on the back of my neck," she says.
a guy I met told the CDC he’s been experiencing flu like symptoms and had a headache while exiting the airplane and they said “ok feel better” and sent him away without taking his temperature or separating him from the public
— emma (@nemmals) March 15, 2020
Bill Begley, a spokesman for DFW Airport, said in an email sent to the media that "these federally mandated enhanced procedures are part of the effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”
DFW has been named one of 13 airports in the U.S. to accept flights and provide enhanced screening for passengers traveling from certain European countries, China and Iran https://t.co/zmhZjg6OFz
— DFW Airport (@DFWAirport) March 13, 2020
Swaim believes there's no way those procedures are going to keep people safe.
"I am very confident, and everyone I met at the airport is very confident, that things are about to get worse in the U.S.," she said.
Passengers from across the globe were coughing, she said, and sickly passengers were standing right next to people who seemed healthy.
"We were being led off of a plane and placed into groups and no one's temperatures were taken," Swaim said. "Then before we could be released into the general area - you know, where all the passengers were - we had to talk to a CDC agent or representative. And they look at the paperwork you've filled out and they ask you 'Are you feeling nauseous?' You tell them 'yes' or 'no.' And then they sign off and you can leave. That's it."
— emma (@nemmals) March 15, 2020
Swaim described a passenger that she befriended on her flight back to the U.S. The man had been in the United Kingdom before flying to Paris. And during the week, he had a fever, she said. He told a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention representative about his symptoms, including nausea. The agent, she said, told the man to "feel better and to have a great flight home."
A Different Approach, Yet Still Fear
Begley, the DFW spokesman, said things were different Sunday.
"We understand Customs and Border Protection has changed the process to improve screening times," he wrote in the email. (The airport would not comment further.)
CBP recognizes that the wait times experienced yesterday were unacceptable. As we work collaboratively to address the spread of COVID-19, some of the resources of our partners are stretched thin. CBP continually adjusts its resources as needed & will continue to do so. Statement: pic.twitter.com/z4txUpj1R0
— Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan (@CBPMarkMorgan) March 15, 2020
That wasn't much comfort to Leslee Jaeger, a mother and physician in Minnesota. She tweeted that when she returned to DFW from Ecuador early Sunday morning, there was no health screening at all.
— Leslee Jaeger (@obdrmama) March 15, 2020
Jaeger and her family had been planning a two-week trip to South America for more than a year. And despite the health concerns, they decided to head to Ecuador becuase there had been so few cases of coronavirus in that country.
When they arrived there, they had their temperatures taken and were given a health questionnaire, she said. They were were asked health questions multiple times at several stops inside the airport. She felt good about everything. But shortly after arriving at their hacienda, she got word that Ecuador would be closing its borders and stopping flights in and out of the country. She and her family decided to come home.
"We took a flight out at 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning," she says. "We were expecting long lines in Dallas. And we only had a two-hour layover [before our flight to Minnesota], so we were worried we might miss our flight. But once we got to Dallas, we walked straight through customs. Nobody asked us one thing. And there were no lines at all."
That puzzled her.
"There wasn't even anyone telling people to self-quarantine," she says. "I mean, I understand that we need to self-quarantine because I'm a physician, but nobody gave us any guidance. There was no paperwork handed out. And no questions about whether we'd been sick recently or how long we'd even been out of the country."
Jaeger says she's not sure what the process looked like on Saturday. But she thinks there ought to be more testing when travelers arrive.