Coronavirus: What O'Hare, Metra, CTA are doing amid COVID-19 fears
The idea of a coronavirus outbreak shutting down airports, trains and buses -- as occurred in Wuhan, China, in January -- seems improbable in the suburbs.
But as the worldwide count of patients spirals and federal authorities warn more U.S. cases are inevitable, how prepared is the region's transportation network?
In Illinois so far, two people diagnosed with the deadly disease in Chicago have recovered, and a third presumed case in Cook County was announced Saturday.
O'Hare International Airport is one of 11 U.S. airports screening flyers who've been in China for the virus that causes pneumonia.
But after a man died of the virus near Seattle, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday said the U.S. is asking Italy and South Korea to conduct health screenings of people coming to the U.S. and restricted admission to the U.S. from Iran.
At a separate area in O'Hare's Terminal 5, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health officers check passengers for symptoms of coronavirus such as fever and coughing.
"Sick travelers who are reasonably believed to be infected with or exposed to the new coronavirus will be transferred to a hospital for further assessment," CDC spokesman Scott Pauley said earlier.
"Right now, Chicago Department of Public Health staff are at O'Hare airport, as they are every day, connecting with returning travelers, distributing thermometers, collecting information as a complement to the CDC federal screening," public health Commissioner Allison Arwady said. "Right now, CDPH staff are monitoring hundreds of recently returned travelers and arranging testing if these travelers develop symptoms."
As to whether the government will expand screenings at U.S. airports of people arriving from South Korea, Japan and Italy, where the illness is widespread, officials would not say as yet. A CDC spokesman told CNN that "every day we re-evaluate what we're doing."
Currently, the government is telling Americans not to travel to China and Iran, and has alerts regarding trips to South Korea and Italy.
The White House also expanded travel advisories Saturday, warning Americans not to go to certain areas of Italy and South Korea with significant coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks.
Meanwhile, myriad logistics loom for transit agencies in containing a disease spread by coughing or sneezing on a system that transports nearly 2 million people in close quarters every weekday.
Metra, Pace and CTA officials said they will take the lead from state and federal health authorities if significant virus cases emerge in the Chicago area.
"I shouldn't say we're not worried, but we feel prepared because we have a very dedicated staff," Pace spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said.
Last week, "Pace issued a memo to all employees with the CDC's recommendations to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including frequent hand washing and sanitizing. Face masks are not recommended at this time," she said.
Toronto commuters were rattled in 2003 during the SARS epidemic when they learned a nurse with the disease had been riding a commuter train.
Going forward, among the contingencies facing local transit agencies might be stocking up on face masks, hand sanitizer and wipes. "We'll take our direction from the Office of Emergency Management," Daly Skogsbakken said.
Pace cleans and sanitizes buses nightly and those efforts could be stepped up as needed, she added.
"The biggest priority is to keep everyone safe and keep transit running," Daly Skogsbakken said.
As for Metra, "if there is an outbreak here, we would follow the directions of health authorities," Metra Communications Director Michael Gillis said.
A CTA spokesman said the agency is coordinating with the CDC and Chicago Department of Public Health but would not discuss details.
At O'Hare's Terminal 5, travelers who have been in China are directed to a separate area and asked to complete a questionnaire about their visit and provide contact information.
CDC staffers use noncontact thermometers to take temperatures and if an individual has breathing difficulties, fever or a cough, he or she will be taken to a medical facility for evaluation and care if needed, the CDC said. Terminal 5 also has a quarantine station.
People without symptoms who returned from Hubai Province, where Wuhan is located and the epicenter of the outbreak, will be under a quarantine order, which could mean a 14-day stay at Naval Station Great Lakes near North Chicago. Healthy travelers from China who didn't visit Hubai Province will be asked to stay at home for 14 days, avoid contact with other people, and monitor their health according to the CDC's website.
Spring is coming and so is road work. IDOT advises Northwest Highway (Route 14) drivers to expect delays as crews resurface pavement between Merrill and Miner streets in the Park Ridge/Des Plaines area. Work wraps up in November.
Got your pass or Ventra card ready? You should because in January Metra began checking tickets before passengers board some trains at downtown stations. Most riders are complying and about 5% ask for an explanation, a spokesman said. The answer -- Metra is trying to recapture lost fare revenues.