Picture this: A flight with passengers from Uganda just touched down at Miami International Airport. As the visitors inch toward the terminal, one pauses in the aisle and wipes a speck of blood from his earlobe. Suddenly sweat runs down his cheeks; his eyes are inky red. He lets out a guttural moan before a stream of vomit pours out.
Ebola has just been let loose in MIA, an airport that caters to 7 million international passengers, 27,000 immigrants, and nearly 10,000 refuges in a year. Catastrophe seems imminent.
Don't grab the gas masks and run for your survivalist bunker just yet. Few of the millions pouring through MIA realize it, but the airport is actually among the few in the country equipped for what would happen if ebola actually did make it to town.
Deep in the bowels of MIA lies the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's quarantine station. Patrolled by a full-time "quarantine officer," the facility is built just for these occasions: to keep deadly diseases from breaching our borders. The ominous-sounding room may conjure notions of guys in hazmat suits wrestling mutant viruses, but -- so far, at least -- reality is thankfully far blander.
A Freedom of Information Request filed in April by New Times for a list of all animals, persons, or any other item quarantined in Miami over the past two years turned up zilch. In other words, no Michael Crichton scenarios have erupted in South Florida -- yet.
It's no huge surprise that the station hasn't seen use recently. The authority to put someone in solitary confinement, after all, raises some constitutional concerns. Back in 2003, an executive order explained that to quarantine someone, a person must be infected with one of these nasty bugs: cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, or viral hemorrhagic fevers (a blanket term for ebolaesque maladies). SARS and flu pandemics can sometimes justify a quarantine.
Although the CDC may not have used the facility in years, it is busy tracking sick people traveling in and out of the country through MIA. The agency maintains the Quarantine Activity Reporting System, a database that watches "the presence of ill persons on inbound flights and vessels and at land border crossings, infectious disease threats, or actions related to imported pathogens."
All told, the CDC has 20 quarantine stations around the country, from Anchorage to Dallas to New York to San Juan, and filed $26 million for related expenses in fiscal 2011.
With tuberculosis circulating among the Sunshine State's homeless population, new cases of ebola surfacing in Uganda (not to mention those fears of a "zombie virus" attacking Miami earlier this year) -- let's hope the CDC can keep its MIA quarantine record a goose egg.
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