Minnesota readies Ebola monitoring for travelers from W. Africa

Passengers mingle at JFK
Passengers mingle in the arrivals area at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014.
Craig Ruttle / AP

The Minnesota Department of Health will soon begin monitoring all travelers from Ebola-affected countries.

The roughly 10 people per week who return here from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will be contacted and monitored for 21 days, the incubation period for Ebola.

It will be part of a larger program unveiled Wednesday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that starts Monday for travelers arriving in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

It's not clear yet when Minnesota's program will start, but the CDC process will be extended to all states eventually and officials here are preparing.

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Minnesota officials will receive contact information and follow up with all travelers arriving here from those three nations, said Kris Ehresmann, the health department's infectious diseases director.

Once monitoring begins, health officials will be in daily contact with travelers for the 21 days.

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Here are more details about how the monitoring will work:

How will health officials monitor these travelers?

When travelers from Ebola-affected countries arrive in the U.S., they will be given a package of materials called a "CARE kit."

It will contain a thermometer so that they can take their temperature twice a day and report it. The kit will also have information about Ebola symptoms and a contact card, so they know where to call to report any possible symptoms.

When the travelers arrive in Minnesota, they will be contacted by either the state or local health department. They'll be asked how they're feeling and whether they are experiencing any symptoms that might be consistent with Ebola.

Assuming that they're not, they'll be told to call again the next day and each day thereafter for 21 days — that's the longest time that Ebola could incubate within a person.

What if they don't call the local health department when they arrive in Minnesota?

Minnesota health authorities will receive a list of the travelers coming to the state from these countries. They'll also receive their contact information, including where they will be staying.

The state health department says it will probably make the initial contact with a traveler. Local health departments may follow up, depending on where the person is staying.

What if the traveler is only spending part of their visit in Minnesota?

The health department is still trying to figure out what that would mean.

Presumably, the agency would be able to hand off the traveler's monitoring to another state. But it's not clear yet how that will work.

What is clear is that someone has to monitor the traveler for 21 days, no matter where they go.

How does this help the health department?

Currently, the department doesn't know anything about travelers who may be at risk of carrying Ebola, so they can't influence the transportation a person uses to get to the hospital if they develop symptoms. They also can't advise them on which hospital to go to and they can't let the hospital know they're coming.

Under this plan, the health department could call ahead and make sure that health workers were prepared to deal with a possible Ebola case.

Alexander Collins, executive director of the Liberian Ministers Association of Minnesota, says West Africans in Minnesota want to go a step further and set up dedicated "safe houses" or "quarantine houses" so arriving visitors have a place to stay during the three-week monitoring period.

"Because family members are not open, some are not open, to taking people in, because of the stigma," Collins said. "They've got school kids in the house. If something happens, it's going to affect all of us."

Collins hopes state officials will work with the West African community to establish safe houses.

MPR News' Annie Baxter contributed to this report.