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Coronavirus Effects Create Delays, Confusion At U.S. Airports

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House travel ban on Europe was meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But the immediate effect may have made things worse, at least in some of the country's airports. Because so many people are now flying back to the U.S., airports over the weekend were stretched beyond capacity. Travelers posted photos of masses and masses of people waiting in lines reported to be as long as four hours. Katy Rogers (ph) was flying into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport from Paris. Here's how she described the scene to us.

KATY ROGERS: As we got on the escalator, we realized there's just this sea of humanity. The hallways - you know, those broad terminal hallways were just full of people who were packed in, and all those people start piling up. And somebody finally hit the emergency button and shut everything off. But it was just - it was really alarming.

MARTIN: Katy was among the U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who've been allowed to travel despite the travel ban on European countries. Those travelers have to now go through health screenings. That, of course, takes time. And that led to those long lines and big crowds - so much for social distancing.

But what could be the consequences of all this? Juliette Kayyem is with us this morning. She was the assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama. In that role, she helped lead the response to the H1N1 pandemic. Juliette, thanks for being here this morning.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: What do you think went wrong at these airports?

KAYYEM: So the policy was formed in the White House. And there's debates about whether such travel bans are effective against the virus. But even assuming if they are, there was just a clear execution problem. As it was announced by the president, it was unclear whether it actually applied to U.S. citizens or not.

And then once those specifics were worked out, how it was going to be implemented at one of 13 designated airports where everyone would have to fly into essentially was not practiced, trained, executed, staffed - all of the things that one would do when you make such a dramatic change to border security.

MARTIN: We heard from Katy Rogers before in that intro. She was flying back home from Paris.

KAYYEM: Yeah.

MARTIN: She also told us that she's now afraid for her health.

KAYYEM: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let's listen to more.

ROGERS: And now they've put thousands of us in this tiny space without any hygiene, without - I mean, the whole thing, it really was disconcerting. I was far less concerned about contracting or spreading anything prior to that experience, and now I'm self-quarantining.

MARTIN: Did this exacerbate the problem?

KAYYEM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, if you saw those pictures, I mean, it was literally - you know, what's the opposite of social distancing? It was people - complete strangers - packed very tight together, waiting in lines for, what we've heard, up to six hours, then being processed through a medical screening process that was going to ask them questions, which every answer would probably be, yes. You know, have you...

MARTIN: Because of what just happened...

KAYYEM: (Laughter) Exactly, right?

MARTIN: ...In the line.

KAYYEM: And here's the irony, Rachel - is because of the confusion about how it was disclosed by the president, most of those people did not need to be there. This was a ban on non-U.S. citizens. But because it was so confusing, all these Americans rushed back. So not only was it a health risk, it was actually unnecessary.

MARTIN: Right. But you have worked at the Department of Homeland Security.

KAYYEM: Yeah.

MARTIN: This is under their jurisdiction to think through complicated problems like this. How do you avoid these lines?

KAYYEM: Well, generally, you would have time to plan it out. You would've had a process that essentially ensured that people were not packed together. Then they can screen through. And look; we know how to do this because by all accounts, 24 hours later, the department was actually screening people relatively quickly.

MARTIN: And lastly, Juliette, when you think back to the H1N1 outbreak, what do you think are the most important lessons that health officials, public safety officials learned after that crisis that they could apply to what's happening now?

KAYYEM: I think the most important lesson that we learned is that in the end, this is about local execution, that whatever edicts or communications you have from the federal government, you ultimately have to support local jurisdictions and what they're doing. And so one of the sort of concerning aspects of what we see coming out of the White House now is not only sort of clear communication about social distancing or nursing care facilities - just that sort of, you know, let's set a baseline from the federal government, but just like the travel ban that we were talking about - ultimately, this stuff has to get done by someone on the ground at a checkpoint. And we better make sure they know how to do it. Otherwise, you have situations like what we saw, where we put more Americans at risk rather than fewer.

MARTIN: Juliette Kayyem talking with us. She served as the assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama. She joined us on Skype. Juliette, thank you so much for your perspective this morning. We appreciate it.

KAYYEM: Thank you so much. Be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.