Airports vs. the Zika virus

At Fort Lauderdale, Zika virus information is on display screens, right nex to the flight information screens_courtesy FLL Airport

My most recent “At the Airport” column for USA TODAY takes a look at how airports are working to educate travelers about the Zika virus – and make sure airport grounds don’t become another breeding ground for the virus.

Shops and newsstands, including those run by the Hudson Group in Chicago O’Hare, Seattle-Tacoma and Orlando International Airports, are making sure to carry several brands of insect repellant, including OFF! Deep Woods and Cutter.

At Miami International Airport, an advisory (in English and Spanish) from the Centers for Disease Control is on display in passport clearance areas and airport employees have been issued cards instructing them how to recognize and respond to passengers with communicable diseases, including Zika.

At Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Zika prevention messages from the CDC (in English and Spanish) are front and center right next to many flight display screens.

And at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, signs have been placed throughout the airport, at the U.S. Customs area and in Baggage claim alerting travelers about the Zika virus and offering tips on protection and prevention measures. The airport has also made sure EPA-registered insect repellents are available for purchase in airport newsstands.

Orlando International Airport and both airports in Houston have Zika virus plans in place as well.

“Working in conjunction with our community partners, we feel these steps are not only appropriate but necessary to demonstrate our efforts at protecting our passengers and employees,” Orlando International said in a statement that outlined its plan.

ZIKA_Airport_sign from Houston

And, among the strategies in place at the Houston airports are reminders to employees of the “4 D’s”: Drain (eliminate standing water); Dress (wear long sleeves, pants and socks); Dusk/Dawn (avoid these peak mosquito times) and DEET (use proper repellants).

What else do you need to know if you are heading somewhere where cases of the Zika virus have been confirmed?

“Bring plenty of mosquito repellent, long shirts and pants, and a full-coverage hat,” advises Julia Cosgrove, AFAR’s editor in chief. “Avoid areas where there’s standing water. And, if you are on the coast, stay close to the beach where there’s wind and relatively few mosquitoes.”

Ebola and airports

Ebola jPG

Lots in the news right now about Ebola and airports.

On Wednesday (October 8, 2014) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs & Border Protection (CBP) announced new entry screening procedures for the five U.S. airports that receive over 94 percent of travelers from the Ebola-affected nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

New York’s JFK International Airport will begin the new screening on Saturday. Enhanced entry screening at Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta international airports will start next week.

The CDC issued this fact sheet detailing the screening procedures and the precautions that will be taken at the five U.S. airports and as well as the Ebola screening process underway for travelers leaving the affected countries.

Meanwhile, other airports around the country are issuing statements designed to reassure passengers that proper precautions are in place.

Orlando International Airport, for example, issued a statement telling travelers that “Airport Rescue Fire Fighters (ARFF) and emergency medical paramedics are on duty 24 hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and follow established procedures and protocols already in place if there is an indication of a passenger displaying symptoms and a travel history associated with the disease.”

The statement also noted that “Orlando International Airport has NO direct or non-stop service to the region of West Africa most identified with the Ebola outbreak.”

Get your flu shot at the airport

Should you get a flu shot?

It’s time to get a flu shot and being on the road all the time isn’t an excuse anymore for avoiding that task.

Especially since, as I wrote in my column on this week, there are more than 23 airports where you can get a flu shot on the fly.

Flu shot kiosk

Here’s the story:
Robert Gibbs stays busy running his marketing agency and says finding time to nail down a doctor’s appointment is getting harder and harder.

So on Monday, when he arrived from Chicago and saw that the Harmony Pharmacy store at New York’s JFK airport was offering flu shots, he took off his heavy tweed jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeve. “I’d shopped there before and just thought ‘Now is as good a time as any.’ I didn’t feel weird at all,” said Gibbs, “In fact, getting a flu shot while running through the airport seemed pretty cool.”

First marketed to travelers by the medical clinic at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport seven or eight years ago, in-airport flu shots are being offered this year at clinics and temporary kiosks at close to two dozen airports stretching from Los Angeles to Miami.

“Flu costs Americans an estimated $3 billion or more each year in medical fees and indirect costs such as missed work,” said Jeff Hamiel, executive director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, in announcing the three vaccination stations now open at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “Making vaccinations available at the airport ensures that even the busiest travelers can take steps to stay healthy and productive.”

The CDC and Dr. Z agree

The 2010-2011 flu season began in early October and, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the season will probably peak in January or February and possibly stretch into the spring. CDC recommends everyone 6 months or older get vaccinated and, unlike last year, says it’s not necessary to get a separate shot to protect against the seasonal flu and the H1N1 virus. “The 2010-2011 flu vaccine will protect against an influenza A H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the 2009 H1N1 virus that caused so much illness last season.”

At Chicago O’Hare, flu shots have been available at the airport medical clinic since August and at a stand-alone kiosk since Labor Day. “We don’t know what the flu season will be like this year yet,” says Dr. John Zautcke, Medical Director of the UIC-O’Hare Medical Clinic, “But the flu is a nasty disease that kills people who are old and sick and puts people that are young and healthy in bed for 4-6 days.”

Zautcke says that in addition to frequent hand washing, covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and trying to avoid close contact with sick people – which can be hard to do on an airplane – “The best thing travelers can do to avoid the flu is get a flu shot.”

Plenty of vaccines but fewer patients

Starting in November last year, there was a nationwide shortage of the seasonal flu vaccine because pharmaceutical companies switched to making vaccines for the H1N1 virus. This year, the vaccines are combined and there’s no shortage. But Jeff Butler of Flu*Ease, the company operating flu shot kiosks at more than a half-dozen airports, says airport flu shots don’t seem to be selling as robustly as they have in past years. “I don’t know whether it’s the mild weather, last year’s frenzy over H1N1 or the fact that people now have access to flu shots in so many stores and corporate offices,” says Butler.

“We’re finding the same thing,” says Rosemary Kelly, executive vice president of AeroClinic, which is offering flu shots this year at airports in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Baltimore and Minneapolis-St. Paul. “It just doesn’t seem to be as hot of a topic this year as it was last year.”

Not deterred

That isn’t stopping some airports from expanding their flu shot offerings. This year, San Diego International Airport has five vaccination stations in operation throughout the terminals. Four stations are located post-security, but one station is in a baggage claim area to make it easy for meeters and greeters, and passengers picking up checked bags, to get vaccinated while they wait. And at New York’s JFK Airport, Harmony Pharmacy is waiting for the final OK to open a second flu-shot station; this one in the center of JetBlue’s Terminal 5, by the performance stage.

And the fact that the flu isn’t in the news right now didn’t deter Diane Callen from getting her flu shot at the airport. Callen, a customer service agent at the Las Vegas airport, was robbed over the weekend. “Let’s just say I don’t need to worry about my jewelry anymore,” she said on Monday. After visiting the police station to fill out paperwork, Callen stopped at the Airport MD booth at McCarran International Airport before reporting for work. “It’s one of those things I usually don’t do unless it’s convenient and I figured the way things are going for me, I’d better go get that flu shot.”

To see which airports are offering flu shots – at clinics or at temporary kiosks – scroll down to the bottom of the article: Get your flu shot on the fly at an airport near you.

You’ll find a chart listing listing locations, hours and prices for flu shots at 23 airports.

Flu shot no spitting

Holiday Guide to Germ-Free Air Travel

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 03 23.24

While the rest of us were preparing for Thanksgiving, the CDC was kicking off its largest-ever public awareness campaign about staying healthy while traveling.

And not a moment too soon.

Peak flu season coincides with the busiest weeks of the winter travel season. And although the CDC reported this week that flu-related hospitalizations and deaths are on the drop, an agency spokesperson notes that flu cases “are still very high nation-wide compared to what is expected for this time of year.”

So, in preparation for the next big wave of holiday travel, this week I devoted my Well Mannered Traveler column on to a review of tips for germ-free air travel and an update from airlines about change fees should illness strike.

You can read the Holiday Guide to Germ –Free Air Travel on and vote on whether or not you think all airlines should waive change fees for passengers who are ill. In the meantime, here are some of the highlights from that story.

Steer Clear of Germs

To stay healthy while traveling, begin your trip well-rested and head for the airport early. That way, you won’t be pressed for time, and the stress of traffic and long security lines will roll off your back.

To help ward off illness, experts suggest boosting immunity with exercise, healthy foods and vitamins and, in case you should begin to feel ill, a supply of prescriptions and cold medications to save yourself the hassle of searching for a pharmacy at an airport or in an unfamiliar city.

A sink in every suitcase
Frequent hand washing remains the best way to avoid germs while traveling, so that kitchen sink in your seatmate’s carry-on bag may actually come in handy.

The CDC says alcohol-based hand sanitizers are fine too, but when you pass through security, those small bottles of sanitizing solution must go in your quart-sized plastic bag. Fishing out the bottles after screening can be a hassle, so keep a supply of individual packets of sanitizing wipes in your pocket. That way you can clean up after touching the plastic bins that have held dirty shoes and other germ-laden items and also wipe down the tray table, armrests and lavatory door handles when you’re on the plane.

Flying with the flu

If you do get sick, CDC suggests you change your plans and stay home. But many travelers will ignore that advice because of hefty change fees levied by most airlines.

Many doctors would like all airlines to waive cancellation and change fees for ill passengers and while some do, you can get dizzy trying to wade through some airline Web sites trying to locate the relevant policy.

To confuse matters even more, some airlines said policies regarding change fees for ill passengers were “under review.”  So it’s sort of a moving target. But for now, here’s what I found out:

  • JetBlue, Northwest and Delta deal with ill passengers seeking changes “on a case-by-case basis.”
  • If you’ve got a non-refundable ticket on American or US Airways, changes to accommodate illness will still cost $150, plus the difference between the old and new fares.
  • AirTran Airways will waive cancellation and rescheduling fees for any passenger with a doctor’s note documenting that they have H1N1, but the policy does not apply to seasonal flu or other illnesses.
  • Virgin America, Continental and United have ongoing policies to waive change fees for customers who can provide documentation of illness from their doctor.
  • And, whether you’re sick, or just sick of flying on airplanes seated next to sneezing, wheezing people, Southwest doesn’t charge for changing or canceling a flight.