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U.S. announces travel restrictions over Ebola

The U.S. announced new travel restrictions for passengers entering the country from Ebola hotspots, just as the GOP intensified its calls for a full travel ban.
Liberia Battles Spreading Ebola Epidemic
A burial team from the Liberian Ministry of Health unloads the bodies of Ebola victims onto a funeral pire at a crematorium in Marshall, Liberia.

The Department of Homeland Security announced new travel restrictions for passengers traveling from Ebola hotspots on Tuesday.

All passengers who have been in Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea will be forced to enter the country through one of the five airports that are already screening passengers for the deadly virus, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement.

Those airports—New York’s JFK, New Jersey’s Newark, Virginia’s Dulles, Atlanta, and Chicago—give passengers from Ebola hotspots “secondary screening and added protocols, including having their temperature taken” before they are allowed entry, the statement said. The five airports receive 94% of the roughly 100-150 passengers entering from those countries; the change—which is expected to affect the other 6% of passengers traveling from those countries—will shore up the country’s screening, including as many as 279 more passengers a month.  

“We are continually evaluating whether additional restrictions or added screening and precautionary measures are necessary to protect the American people and will act accordingly,” Johnson added. His announcement comes after more than 70 lawmakers called for travel bans.

On Monday afternoon, Florida Senator and likely 2016 hopeful Marco Rubio took it one step further, becoming the first senator to promise to write legislation. He said he will introduce a Senate bill next month when the Senate returns; if passed, it would be applied immediately to Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and any other countries where significant numbers are infected with Ebola. 

According to a letter Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee Republican Rep. Ed Royce sent to Secretary of State John Kerry, 100 people are applying for visas each day from the countries.

In the House, three Republicans have vowed to introduce similar legislation when they are reconvened. 

Experts say a travel ban will hurt containment efforts in the U.S. as travelers lie on screening forms and relief efforts in Africa, but Americans overwhelmingly support the idea of it and many Republicans -- particularly those eyeing 2016 -- and red-state Democrats have jumped on the idea. Officials say stopping the largest-ever-outbreak in West Africa is key and travel bans would hurt relief and humanitarian efforts.

Photo essay: Ebola continues its deadly march

“We must take any and all necessary precautions to contain this virus -- and common sense restrictions on travel from countries now confronting this epidemic is an important step," the Florida Republican said.

The ban would be in place until the Centers for Disease Control declares the Ebola outbreak contained, though “approved” aid workers coming to the U.S. for Ebola training would be allowed to enter the country and Rubio sought to defend his ban from the criticism from officials.

“This ban on issuance of visas does not mean we will be completely cutting off the affected countries from the outside world,” Rubio said in a statement. “We must continue to increase our assistance to those countries as they struggle to contain this outbreak. That is, ultimately, the only way we will be able to stop this outbreak and keep Americans safe from this horrible disease.” 

Related: How Ebola will impact the 2014 elections

More than 4,500 have already died from Ebola in West Africa and estimates predict that number could jump radically in the coming months. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced that vaccine development had been sped up and clinical trials were beginning this year. They expect to begin using the vaccine in West Africa in early 2015. 

Already there have been three cases of Ebola diagnosed in the United States; the first was a Liberian man named Thomas Eric Duncan, who traveled here after being exposed in West Africa. Two of the nurses who treated Duncan before he died earlier this month also contracted the disease, exposing flaws in early precautions. 

On Monday night, the CDC issued strengthened guidelines for healthcare workers treating those with Ebola, including mandating that hospital workers wear two sets of gloves, disposable hoods with full-face shields and masks, NBC News reported. 

There are other cases of the disease that have been brought here after being diagnosed, like NBC News freelancer Ashoka Mukpo, who has been tweeting about his experience, thanking his medical team and remarking on the outbreak abroad.