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National Guard begins screening Montana airport passengers

Billings Logan International Airport (Alan Myles NYC/WikiCommons)

Six uniformed Montana Army and Air National Guard members, wearing face masks and gloves, screened passengers from two flights arriving at the Billings Logan International Airport on Friday.

Guard members were activated by the governor Wednesday and sent to 17 locations around the state to screen consenting passengers arriving at airports and train stations to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

In Billings, the Guard members were screening passengers for fevers and asking if they felt shortness of breath, had a cough or chest pain, and if the traveler had been in contact with someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Passengers who register a fever after undergoing the voluntary screening will be pulled aside into a room and referred to medical professionals.

Five of the Guard members are from Billings and one is from Roundup.

Capt. Jacob Pancheau, of Billings, said the Guard members had been preparing for a while for the likelihood they’d be called to active duty.

“In any sort of crisis we know in the back of our mind that we might be called on to help,” he said Friday morning.

The Guard members had been preparing since morning for the incoming flights and said working with the airport has been easy.

An American Airlines flight from Dallas arrived around 11 a.m. on Friday with a total of eight passengers. Two passengers opted out of the voluntary screening. None of the six passengers who were screened registered fevers.

An emergency medicine physician, Dr. Alexander Cianflone who lives in Cody, was returning from working at a hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Friday.

He said he wasn’t screened at his other connections, and appreciated getting screened by the National Guard in Billings.

“They’re nice,” he said. “They’re doing their jobs.”

Cianflone, who was wearing a face mask, said he felt that wearing a mask while in public was crucial to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Teresa Bullock, a Billings resident traveling home from her horse ranch in Dallas, went through the screening process. Her puppy, Ruger, didn’t have his temperature taken.

“It’s good to be cautious,” Bullock said. She owns the Cutie Patootie Boutique and Smile Bright, USA, both in Rimrock Mall.

She said the presence of the Guard was comforting. Bullock also said she had been keeping up with Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order and self-quarantine order for visitors. Teresa Bullock is not related to the governor.

Another passenger, Charlyne Hoffman, a Billings resident and American Airlines employee, said she had read of the National Guard getting deployed in Montana and was prepared to take the screening when she disembarked from the airplane.

Hoffman said she had been abrasively questioned about her business and travel plans by police at the Dallas airport but said the Montana Guardsmen were courteous and kind.

The number of travelers coming into the Billings airport has been consistently dropping, said airport director Kevin Ploehn.

Typically the beginning of April would see about 1,000 to 1,200 travelers go through the airport daily. This week saw fewer than 200 passengers daily coming through, Ploehn said.

The Montana Free Press reported that data from vacation rentals in Montana has been up, suggesting that some visitors were seeking shelter in the state.

Ploehn expected fewer and fewer travelers to arrive, especially after Bullock’s Monday order imposing a 14-day quarantine on travelers arriving in Montana.

Friday morning Montana reported 243 cases of COVID-19. Five people have died from the disease, and 24 people have been hospitalized.

Governors in all 50 states; Puerto Rico; Guam; the U.S. Virgin Islands; and Washington, D.C., have all mobilized components of their Army and Air National Guard in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Military Times reported Tuesday.


© 2020 the Billings Gazette