A man wears a face mask as he stands along the waterfront in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, which is at the center of the Coronavirus outbreak.

A man wears a face mask as he stands along the waterfront in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, which is at the center of the Coronavirus outbreak. Arek Rataj / AP

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Federal Employees Are on the Frontlines of the Fight Against the New Coronavirus

Agencies are taking special precautions to protect those workers, officials said Monday.

The Trump administration continues to realign federal agencies in response to the novel coronavirus, pledging government resources and personnel to screen passengers traveling from the Chinese regions where cases of the virus and deaths have skyrocketed. 

The outbreak has yet to take hold in the United States, with only 11 confirmed cases domestically. Still, agencies are taking widespread action to prepare for a situation officials say will inevitably get worse. President Trump on Friday announced that no foreign nationals traveling from China would be permitted to enter the United States, while Americans returning from the outbreak’s epicenter could be subject to mandatory, two-week quarantines. 

Customs and Border Protection began verbally communicating the new policy to frontline personnel on Sunday. The agency is allowing its officers to wear personal protective equipment and making supplies such as gloves and respiratory masks available to them. A CBP official said the agency has provided guidance to all employees on the use of the protective equipment to help prevent spreading the disease. 

All flights with passengers who have been in China in the last 14 days will be routed to one of 11 U.S. airports, CBP and the Transportation Security Administration said in a Federal Register notice that will publish Tuesday, where CBP officers will conduct initial screenings for signs of illness. CBP has not yet deployed any additional personnel to those airports, the agency official said. The officers will be responsible only for identifying passengers for additional screening. CBP will then transfer individuals meeting that threshold to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employees for full health screenings and additional actions deemed necessary. 

CDC officials did not respond to inquiries into what personnel deployments they have made, but the agency previously said it was sending teams to 20 airports to enhance screenings of passengers. It has also deployed “multidisciplinary teams” to Washington state, Illinois, California and Arizona to assist with the patients who have contracted the virus and the doctors and state health departments caring for them. 

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers, is pushing the agency to provide “clear and consistent” guidance to employees for implementing Trump’s proclamation, said Tony Reardon, the organization’s president. 

“CBP employees have worked hand-in-hand with medical personnel from the Centers for Disease Control to make sure passengers at risk are identified, screened and processed properly,” Reardon said. “We expect that cooperation to continue, especially at the airports now targeted to receive flights with potentially at-risk passengers.”

He added that the union will continue to ensure CBP employees have the “instructions, tools and resources they need” to respond to the outbreak safely and effectively, including specific steps for officers who may have come in contact with infected patients. 

The State Department has recalled all the employees it had in Hubei province where the outbreak began, sending a private plane to take them and their family members back to the United States. CDC and State last week elevated their travel advisory for China, instructing all Americans to avoid non-essential travel to the country. A group of 20 CDC employees is currently monitoring a group of 195 Americans who returned from the Hubei Province, where the outbreak originated, for signs of illness. 

The National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration are working on the longer-term project of developing vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. There is not yet any proven therapy to treat the virus. CDC is working with the White House Office of Management and Budget to tap $105 million in funds available for immediate response efforts. The Health and Human Services Department may notify Congress of its intent to transfer another $136 million for its response, The Washington Post reported on Monday. Officials said they expect CDC employees to form part of the World Health Organization team deploying to the Hubei Province to work with Chinese officials there. 

The new coronavirus has claimed more than 360 lives; nearly all deaths so far have occurred in mainland China. Officials estimate more than 17,000 individuals have been infected.