Philly’s coronavirus response

Airport workers to get coronavirus training as PHL ramps up response

Philly International is not a designated “screener” location, but does have a CDC quarantine station.

PHL-airport-hallway
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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PHL International has tweaked its health and safety precautions as the new coronavirus and COVID-19 infection proliferate around the world.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump announced travel restrictions to and from certain European countries. PHL will not be accepting flights from Italy, airport spokesperson Florence Brown said in an email. Now, just 11 U.S. airports will be able to receive passengers from Europe.

Additionally, incoming passengers from affected countries will now receive a printed information guide, provided by the CDC.

PHL International is not a screener airport, meaning passengers returning to PHL from international travel will not undergo advanced screening that includes having their temperatures taken, for example. Still, the airport is getting serious about the threat of a coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness.

In addition to screening conducted by Customs and Border Patrol for passengers who’ve been to Wuhan, the airport will host specialized coronavirus-related training for staff.

Scheduled for late March, the training will be conducted by the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH), and will be open to all airport workers, including non-union members, 32BJ SEIU head Daisy Cruz told Billy Penn. The union has already held the training for airport employees in New York and Massachusetts

It’ll cover the basics — wash your hands often, don’t touch your face — and also advise workers who clean out the planes between passenger flights to wear gloves, if they don’t already.

While workers at some airports across the country have declined to carry out certain duties for fear of catching the disease, setting up standoffs between staff and their superiors, that hasn’t been the case in Philly. “They have been following the CDC guidelines,” Cruz said of PHL managers, “and…encouraging people to stay home when they’re actually sick.”

And though the union’s members are concerned about a potential outbreak, Cruz said, they’re not panicking and are already taking steps to help prevent the international outbreak from spreading.

“People were just making sure that they’re constantly washing their hands, walking around with hand sanitizer,” she said.

No confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in Philadelphia, although the city Health Department has investigated several since the outbreak first began.

More people than ever before have been flowing through the city’s airport recently. PHL served a record 33 million passengers last year, and saw 2.2 million cycle through this January, a 2.5% increase in volume compared to the previous year.

What kind of dent the novel coronavirus puts in that growth remains to be seen. PHL expects to see a coronavirus-related dip, said Brown, but airlines won’t report their February passenger figures until the end of this month.

Several air carriers are offering incentives to help boost sales. American Airlines, for which Philly is a major hub, is waiving change fees for customers who purchase tickets within the first two weeks in March.

PHL not a ‘screener’ airport, does have quarantine station

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agency, which is coordinating much of the country’s response to the virus, has not yet designated Philadelphia International as a “screener airport,” since there are no direct Philly to China flights, said Brown, the airport spokesperson.

However, Philadelphia is one of 20 airports across the U.S. that already has an existing CDC quarantine station, ready for use if needed.

What is happening at PHL are Customs and Border Patrol screenings for travelers who spent time in Wuhan, China, the ground zero for COVID-19.

If border agents observe symptoms of illness, they refer that person to the in-airport CDC personnel for a secondary screening. “CBP employees are not medical professionals,” Customs spokesperson Stephen Sapp noted via email.

China reported the first instance of novel coronavirus in December 2019 and has logged at least 75,000 confirmed and suspected cases. COVID-19 is the disease caused by this virus, officially calle SARS-CoV-2. In China, where the virus is believed to have originated, COVID-19 has a 2.3% fatality rate and was found most in patients between 30 and 79 years old.

The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency caused by the spread of the virus on Jan. 30.

Since December, the virus has appeared globally in dozens of countries including Italy, Denmark, Thailand and the U.S. In America, nine people have died of COVID-19, all in Washington state.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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