COVID-19 pandemic
People walk in front of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, Italy. (Ellen Wisdom)

To the editors:

My husband and I flew home last Saturday, March 7, from an eight-week stay in Italy, one of the countries where the COVID-19 pandemic is the most severe. We had planned to stay until March 17, but as the epidemic began to move down the peninsula, I knew the longer we stayed, the greater our risk.

We hired a driver to take us from central Tuscany to an airport hotel in Rome last Friday. It seemed a better alternative to the train if we wanted to reduce the risk of exposure. The airport hotel was not busy, and the restaurant staff told us they had been advised by the ministry of health to seat customers at least one meter apart. There were hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere. The next morning, at the Leonardo da Vinci Airport, the staff was clearly very concerned about the spread of disease. Staff kept a good distance from travelers. Most wore gloves, and many wore masks. Hand sanitizer dispensers were available, and signs in the restrooms admonished us to take 20 seconds to wash our hands. Before boarding, we were asked to complete questionnaires that included our names and contact information and our flight and seat numbers. We were also asked to note if we had any of the symptoms of COVID-19 and report our travels over the previous 14-day period. As we boarded, we had to stop while an infrared scanner took our temperatures. All are reasonable public health measures to reduce the risk of contagion.

When we arrived in Atlanta and deplaned, we found no special measures related to the COVID-19 epidemic. There was no screening of travelers, and we were given no information about symptoms or what we should do if we experience symptoms. Rather, we were herded off the plane and through passport control and customs as if it were just another arrival. We stood in line with hundreds of others arriving from all over the world, and everyone used the same touch screens for identification and customs declaration. When we met with the passport agent, he asked where we had come from. We said Rome and Milan, and he merely asked if we had anything to declare and welcomed us back home. Clearly, he’d had no training on how to deal with passengers arriving from Italy, a country where an epidemic was raging.

At the time, I had read that there were concerns about insufficient scrutiny of travelers arriving in the U.S. from countries affected by COVID-19. In our experience, there was no scrutiny whatsoever. Agents were more concerned about the food we might have in our bag than about the fact that we might be infecting the crowd with a potentially lethal virus.

It is hard to be optimistic about the Trump administration’s efforts to contain the virus knowing that, a week ago, when other countries were taking decisive measures to contain the disease, the U.S. didn’t even have the simplest measures put into place.

Ellen Wisdom
Norman, Oklahoma

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