NEW YORK, March 15 (Reuters) - U.S. officials appealed for patience on Sunday as travelers returning to the United States over the weekend were met by long lines and massive delays at major airports so they could be screened for the coronavirus.
“I understand this is very stressful,” Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said on Twitter. “We will be increasing capacity, but the health and safety of the American public is first & foremost.”
The medical screenings, which are in addition to the usual immigration and customs checks through which travelers must pass, take about one minute each, Wolf said.
Twitter user Sophie Bair posted a video of huge lines at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Saturday night, saying she had waited for four hours.
“Pics can’t even capture the scale of this,” she wrote. “We’ve had to wait in 3 different stages of lines.”
The long waits prompted Illinois Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker to take to Twitter on Saturday night to slam Republican U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for what he called their “unacceptable” handling of the situation.
“These crowds are waiting to get through customs, which is under federal jurisdiction,” he wrote.
Conditions were improving at several airports by Sunday morning, according to Acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan.
“Our goal is and remains to process passengers as safely and efficiently as possible,” Morgan said in a statement.
The Trump administration last week imposed restrictions on travelers coming from continental Europe, and on Saturday extended the ban to Britain and Ireland. U.S. citizens and permanent residents would still be able to return home, but would be funneled through specific airports, Pence said.
Travelers expressed concern on social media and to local news outlets that the long waits in heaving crowds could put them at greater risk for contracting the coronavirus, which causes the sometimes deadly respiratory illness COVID-19. The disease has infected about 3,000 people in the United States and killed at least 59.
Twitter user Jeffrey Barnett posted a photo of people waiting shoulder to shoulder at DFW International Airport in Texas on Saturday night.
“Current wait time over 3 hours. Coughing and sneezing...” he wrote.
The concerns were shared by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, who said the crowded conditions at the airports were “not helpful” to efforts to contain the virus.
“I’m not going to make policy with you, but if you can possibly lessen that crowding one way or the other, we should do it,” Fauci said on Sunday CNN’s “State of the Union” program. (Reporting by Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Daniel Wallis)