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Chris Jones

McCarran Not Tapped by CDC, But Has Quarantine Facilities

17 October 2005

Las Vegas is not among the handful of U.S. cities whose airports were tabbed to serve as international quarantine checkpoints, but McCarran International has both plans and equipment in place to treat local passengers suspected of carrying the deadly bird flu virus or another contagious pathogen.

Less than 4 percent of McCarran's inbound seats come from international destinations, which probably prevented it from becoming one of the 18 U.S. gateways the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention selected to house a dedicated quarantine station.

Still, airport crews here can handle suspected outbreaks ranging from one passenger to the widespread contamination of a jumbo jet, Rosemary Vassiliadis, Clark County's deputy aviation director, said Friday.

Pilots of aircraft headed to the United States are legally required to report suspected bird flu cases to the nearest U.S. quarantine station prior to arrival or as soon as illness is noted.

But Vassiliadis said such laws would not force a Las Vegas-bound flight, for example, to divert to Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco simply because airports there have CDC-designated quarantine stations.

Rather, she said pilots, airline ground personnel and airport and Clark County health officials would discuss any suspected outbreaks and make their response decisions "in real time" as threats arise, typically well before an at-risk plane ever touches down.

Once a pilot has called in a threat, airport and airline crews would begin coordinating an isolation and treatment program in conjunction with local emergency response teams.

A small outbreak probably would require potential virus carriers to exit their aircraft and go to a private room at McCarran's Terminal 2. There they'd be examined and transported to a nearby hospital, or released should their symptoms be ruled a false alarm.

In case of a aircraftwide threat, Vassiliadis said all passengers and crew would not deplane until a secured area is available. Once there, each traveler would be checked to determine whether further treatment is needed.

In early 2003, the respiratory virus SARS was carried via aircraft to five countries in 24 hours after emerging in rural China. Airline and tourism industries lost billions of dollars worldwide because people were afraid to travel and governments ordered flights canceled.

With concerns about bird flu rising, U.S. health and aviation officials are taking steps to guard against a repeat. Katherine Andrus, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, said the industry is concerned but doesn't want to overreact.

Bird flu generally spreads to people through contact with bird excretions. The fear, though, is that it will mutate into a disease that spreads from human to human.

The disease is most prevalent in Southeast Asia, to which only two U.S. airlines fly -- United and Northwest. But officials with the CDC, airlines and U.S. aviation sector are keeping a close eye as the disease spreads elsewhere.

"The best thing we always do in these situations is stay in close touch with CDC and as soon as we hear something, we kick it out," said Steve van Beek, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, a trade group. By that he means letting airports know they should be prepared to make space available and tell staff and police that planes will need to be isolated and passengers quarantined.

Planes provide a good environment for spreading disease. Passengers are in close quarters and confined for hours, and multiple people might sit in the same seat between cleanings as the jet makes stops.

One way to limit the spread of disease is to force recirculated air through high-efficiency particulate filters, which trap fungi and germs. HEPA filters are used on about three-fourths of all commercial airplanes, Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Alison Duquette said.

"It's a standard industry practice for new aircraft," Duquette said.

Airlines also follow CDC guidelines calling for flight crews to separate a passenger with a contagious disease, if possible, and provide a surgical mask. Quarantine workers will arrange for medical assistance, notify health departments and work with the airline to make sure the disease germs are killed, according to the CDC

"Flu is pretty easy to kill with disinfectant," Andrus said.

At CDC's request, McCarran stopped using cloth mops and rags in favor of disposable cleaning equipment, Vassiliadis said. Janitorial staff there also recently began using CDC-recommended cleaning solvents with compounds that kill viruses and bacteria on contact.

"We let them know what we've adhered to from their list," Vassiliadis said.

Flight crews were reminded that they must notify health officials if a passenger shows suspicious symptoms. United Airlines spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the airline has annual training for flight attendants on controlling infectious diseases and an airline doctor available around the clock.

Passengers sometimes don't show disease symptoms while traveling but are diagnosed later. In those cases, the CDC tracks people who were exposed to the infected passenger.

That turned out to be a challenge during the SARS epidemic, Andrus said, because so many people had to be contacted.

The airlines and the CDC came up with a passenger locator card that can be read by a machine. The CDC would direct airlines to distribute the card, most likely on flights coming from the part of the world where the disease is endemic, Andrus said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.