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‘Not one question:’ International travelers were not screened for coronavirus at O’Hare, woman says

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MILWAUKEE -- The coronavirus pandemic is prompting concern among travelers, especially those flying back from Europe.

Melissa Hambley

Italian officials are reporting more cases -- they saw a 20 percent increase from Friday to Saturday -- bringing the case total to more than 21,000, the worst in Europe. So when UW-Milwaukee student Melissa Hambley flew home from Rome on Friday, March 13, she thought customs agents at the airport would show more concern. She said that didn't happen.

Hambley admitted it was probably irresponsible to go, but felt it would be fine if flights were still allowed to take off. She left March 9, just as the country was rolling out closures before the all-encompassing lockdown on March 11.

Inside Rome's major airport, Hambley could not believe the emptiness after authorities locked-down the country -- just as she and her boyfriend arrived for spring break.

"As soon as we got there, we kind of realized the gravity of the situation, and our anxiety just kind of escalated every hour we were there," Hambley said.

Normally-popular tourist attractions were largely clear and warning signs were posted all around the city. But it was her return trip back to the United States, particularly arriving at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, that worried her the most.

"Not one question was asked where we came from, if we felt ill, what to do if we did start feeling ill. I mean, no one's temperature was being taken," said Hambley.

Hambley said she expected all of that. She said, instead, U.S. Customs agents only asked how long she was gone, then stamped her passport -- much to her surprise and concern.

"The customs agents weren't even wearing gloves or masks or anything," she said.

FOX6 News reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment on the lack of screening. The department sent a statement, reading in part: "CBP employees are encouraged to maintain situational awareness while processing individuals who have traveled from or transited through affected countries. If individuals are observed with symptoms of COVID-19 we will continue to work with the CDC to determine if a traveler is a possible public health risk by referring them for enhanced screening."

The spokesman said the agency implemented a new policy for enhanced screening for passengers coming from Europe, which took effect at midnight Saturday, after Hambley returned.

But for those who have already returned, like Hambley, the change may be too little too late.

"This is how it's gonna spread. I mean, if nothing's being done at the airport for international travelers, I mean obviously it's going to keep spreading," Hambley said.

Right now, Hambley said she feels fatigue from travel, but it's showing any signs or symptoms of coronavirus. However, like health officials suggest, she is now taking part in a self-quarantine for two weeks just in case.

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