See more of the story

Screening for travelers infected with a novel coronavirus might be job No. 1 right now for the quarantine station at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but the facility has been operating for more than a decade to prevent serious infectious diseases from emerging in the U.S.

Opened following the global SARS outbreak in 2003, the station is responsible for detecting people coming to the U.S. at local entry points with serious or suspicious illnesses, and has the authority to quarantine anyone with an infection that has been deemed a serious threat by federal executive order. Examples include smallpox, the SARS virus, and any new influenza virus that poses a threat of a global pandemic.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declined requests for interviews with leaders of the local quarantine station, but Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said all 20 stations in the U.S. work daily with Customs and Border Protection officials to identify ill travelers.

"It's called our standard illness protocol, part of our normal business," she said, "but we're enhancing those activities" by adding staff at all 20 given the coronavirus concern.

CDC quarantine stations were reduced from 55 to eight in the 1970s, a period of relative calm with regard to global pandemics, but were added back at the Minneapolis airport and other locations. The Minneapolis station also is responsible for responding to cases of seriously ill people entering the U.S. through ships at the Duluth water port, and U.S.-Canada border crossings in Minnesota and North Dakota.

In terms of their ability to seal off the nation from viral threats, the stations are limited, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. "These detection stations that are set up at airports to pick up people who come in with fevers are kind of like fixing three of the five screen doors in your submarine."

The stations do play a key role in educating travelers, though, Osterholm said. Returnees from China might not have symptoms until after they are back home and need to know what to do.

Messonnier said education is one reason why staffing is being increased at all quarantine stations, including at the MSP airport. Travelers returning from China will be checked for fevers and handed cards that instruct them to call doctors if they get sick rather than go to clinics, where they could spread an infection to others.

Researchers have differed on whether the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, is more infectious than seasonal influenza, though they agree that it doesn't spread as quickly as the measles.

The severity of infection is unclear as well, though people who are elderly or have other health problems appear at greater risk of complications.