In the wake of the recent Ebola outbreak, President Barack Obama has met regularly with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) leadership and has held direct discussions with state and local officials concerning the administration's domestic preparedness response. CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to help coordinate technical assistance and control activities. While much of the focus of the Ebola response has been on the need for screening of international airline passengers (with five major international airports in the United States implementing enhanced screening), attention has recently turned to U.S. seaports receiving international shipments from West African countries.
Scrutiny of the maritime industry by the United States government, heightened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, now extends to Ebola preparedness. As federal, state and local governments develop measures to prevent this deadly disease from reaching our shores, it is important for shippers, port authorities and others involved in sea trade to prepare for closer oversight by Congress and various regulatory agencies. Compliance with security protocols, meeting regulatory thresholds and preparing for changing circumstances will remain essential as the nation responds to this crisis.
Focus on U.S. Seaports
Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), a member of the Senate Majority Leadership, has written to the CDC Director: "I ask that CDC work with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in major U.S. ports of entry to increase the monitoring and identification of people arriving . . . by cargo ship." Senator Schumer has called on CDC and CBP to conduct intense health screening for personnel working on cargo ships at ports of entry – particularly focusing on Liberian vessels since that country has the second largest cargo ship fleet in the world, with 3,500 Liberian-flagged ships. The Senator has also suggested that personnel on cargo ships from West African countries be screened with use of a health declaration form.
The Obama administration has announced that the U.S. Coast Guard will contact ships that have recently been to Ebola-affected countries to ask whether passengers have symptoms of the virus before they are allowed into port, and will screen passengers for symptoms of Ebola aboard cargo ships coming from the affected countries. The Coast Guard has stated that the policy applies to vessels that visited affected countries within their last five ports of call. The Coast Guard issued a bulletin to the maritime community in Long Island Sound on October 6 describing new protocols due to Ebola. While the Coast Guard has not stated whether its other sectors around the country will take similar action, it seems reasonable to anticipate a nationwide approach to seaport screening in the near future.
Congressional Action Appears Likely
When Congress returns to Washington for a "lame duck" session following the November 4 elections, we expect a variety of emergency measures in response to the Ebola outbreak to be considered. This may include additional funding for responses on the ground in West Africa, with $1 billion in appropriations requested by the Obama administration; additional resources for screening passengers at airports and seaports; and recommendations for participation by industry in response activities. We expect that port safety will be an important part of these discussions.