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Originally published October 13, 2014 at 11:49 AM | Page modified October 13, 2014 at 12:20 PM

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What it’s like to fly out of Ebola-ravaged Liberia

Nothing is routine when leaving the West African country of Liberia where the airport routine is temperature checks; handwashing with bleach; and questions.

The New York Times


MONROVIA, Liberia — The woman at the Brussels Airlines city check-in office told me to arrive at Robertsfield Airport three hours before my 8:40 p.m. flight.

My sister, who still lives in my family’s native Liberia, dropped me off at the airport gate at 5:15 p.m. You have to get your temperature checked simply to enter the airport grounds, so I got out of the car at the gate. I did not hug or kiss her goodbye.

I had dropped my luggage off at the city check-in office so I wouldn’t have to deal with it again until Washington D.C. I carried a blue canvas handbag crammed with wallet, laptop, two cellphones, passport, change of clothing, bleach wipes, and two Ziploc bags full of the malaria pills and immune boosters I had been taking for the two weeks I had been covering the Ebola outbreak. And now I was taking the same route to the United States flown by Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who, after traveling on to Dallas, fell to the disease.

At 5:23, the guard at the gate pointed his laser thermometer at my forehead. In the two weeks I had been in Monrovia, my temperature — taken an average of six to eight times daily — tended to hover between 35.4 and 36.5 degrees Celsius, which are normal body temperatures. Once it got up to 36.9 degrees, and I became alarmed. Above 38 degrees Celsius is when they start asking other questions. No one wants to be there.

At the Robertsfield gate, I was 36.4. “Go wash your hands,” the guard said, pointing to a big plastic jug of chlorine water. It was the ninth time that day that I’d washed my hands in bleach. Health officials say chlorine kills the virus instantly. In Liberia, people use a lot of chlorine now.

Outside the terminal, a woman gave me a health questionnaire that listed a bunch of symptoms — fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, red eyes — and asked if I had had any of them in the past two days. The form also asked, in several different ways, if I’d come into contact with anyone with Ebola. I X’d no to everything because I made a point to never touch anyone during my two weeks there.

At the terminal door, a guard glanced at my answers, then pointed to another jug. I washed my hands again.

Next stop was four health workers in goggles, masks, gloves and white coats, but not hazmat suits. One scanned my answers and put it in a stack. Another pointed his laser thermometer at me.

It read 36.4 degrees.

Finally, 43 minutes after I arrived at the airport, I walked into the terminal.

The immigration line was crowded, and it was almost impossible not to touch other people. Cursing myself for wearing my jacket around my waist instead of my shoulders, I hunched into myself to avoid human skin. The plastic-gloved security woman wanted to frisk me by hand and she touched my neck and my arm. Then she took off her gloves, threw them in a basket, and put on another pair for the next passenger. So she was changing gloves before each body check. Good.

But I still headed straight to the bathroom and used four chlorine wipes on my arms, neck, and face. And I put my jacket on.

Two hours later, the Brussels Air flight landed on Robertsfield’s sole runway, and everyone in the terminal — this being the only flight out Friday night — surged toward the door. We stood around for 30 minutes, and then the health workers appeared before us with their laser thermometers. The left side of my face had been feeling hot as I waited in the terminal, and I was fretting. I went to the female health worker on my right. She checked my left side.

It read 35.4 degrees.

At the plane, we were greeted by flight attendants wearing masks and gloves. One of them kept his mask on for the entire six-hour flight. “This is not very reassuring,” the woman behind me muttered.

We took off a little late at 9:10. No one seemed to sleep.

We landed in Brussels at 5:49 a.m. There was no screening in Brussels. After a six-hour layover, my United flight to Washington was completely normal.

We landed at Dulles airport at Washington, D.C., at 2:20 p.m. The automated entry kiosk scanned my passport and spit out a customs receipt with a big X on it and instructions to take it to a passport officer. I went to the nearest one, showed it to him, and said, “I’m coming from Liberia.”

“Ugh,” he said. He told me to go to the next agent.

When I told the agent I’d flown in from Liberia, he said, “Thanks for telling me,” and put on gloves before taking my passport. He asked me how long I’d been there, whether I felt sick, and if I’d had my temperature taken. I told him two weeks, no, and three times the night before. “That’s great that they’re doing that,” he said, and told me to report to customs after getting my luggage.

At customs they sent me into the room for sketchy types, and told me to go to Line C. The agent called me up and asked me the same questions. He wore gloves, and gave me a sheet with the CDC emergency phone number on it in case I started feeling symptoms. He said that he expected CDC personnel to begin doing temperature checks next week, but that for the past two weeks, since Thomas Eric Duncan, they had just been taking these simple screening measures.

I walked out of Dulles at 3:30, one hour and 10 minutes after my flight landed. An hour later, I was home.

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