A woman at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where starting Saturday, arrivals from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea will have their temperature taken.

ATLANTA — Federal health officials will require temperature checks for the first time at five major American airports for people arriving from the three West African countries hardest hit by the deadly Ebola virus. However, health experts said the measures were more likely to calm a worried public than to prevent many people with Ebola from entering the country.

Still, they constitute the first large-scale attempt to improve security at American ports of entry since the virus arrived on American soil last month.

They are also a notable policy shift at a time of rising concern about the disease. Public health officials had initially resisted the move, saying such checks would be an unnecessary use of thinly stretched resources. But pressure for tougher action mounted. Republicans sharply criticized President Obama for what they called a lax response. Many, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, have suggested looking at air travel restrictions from West Africa, something the administration has rejected.

The temperature check requirements were announced hours after the first Ebola patient to have the illness diagnosed in the United States, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, died in a Dallas hospital, intensifying questions about whether he might have survived had he been admitted to a hospital when he first sought care there in late September.

The president’s Republican critics were largely silent Wednesday after Mr. Duncan died and the administration announced the airport screenings. It was unclear if the Republicans saw the temperature checks as a sufficient response to the epidemic or if they did not want to be perceived as seeking political gain from Mr. Duncan’s death.

That Mr. Duncan was able to get from Liberia to Dallas as the disease surged out of control in West Africa underscored the risk of spreading disease in a globalized world. An infected Liberian-American, Patrick Sawyer, carried the disease to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, on a flight for business. Mr. Duncan had come to the United States to reunite with family.

“We are a global village,” said Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan. “Germs have always traveled. The problem now is they can travel with the speed of a jet plane.”

The new requirement of temperature checks has broad implications for health departments across the country.

In a conference call with state and local officials Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Obama expressed confidence in the procedures already in place to prevent the spread of Ebola, but urged them to be vigilant in the days and weeks ahead.

“As we saw in Dallas, we don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Mr. Obama told the group, according to a transcript released by the White House. “If we don’t follow protocols and procedures that are put in place, then we’re putting folks in our communities at risk.”

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A Liberian man began showing symptoms four days after arriving in Dallas.

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Experts cautioned that a temperature check on arrival would almost certainly not have detected that Mr. Duncan had Ebola before he entered the country. The disease typically incubates for eight to 10 days before symptoms, including fever, develop.

American health officials believe Mr. Duncan did not have a fever when he arrived in the United States, a view seconded by his family. “There’s a sense that this is a be-all-and-end-all and that this will put up an iron curtain, but it won’t,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “At the very most, all we are buying here is some reduction of anxiety.” He added, “That’s worth something because, at the moment, we have a much larger outbreak of anxiety than we have of Ebola.”

The measures will go into effect on Saturday at Kennedy International Airport in New York. J.F.K. receives about 43 percent of the people who fly to the United States from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Next week, screenings will begin at Washington Dulles, which gets 22 percent of such travelers, and at Newark Liberty International, O’Hare International in Chicago and Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta.

After a passport check, airport workers will lead travelers to a special area and point a thermometer at their foreheads. The workers will also ask travelers questions. A fever can be a symptom of Ebola. Those who have a fever will be taken to a quarantine area in the airports and evaluated by an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It will be up to local health departments whether to place them in quarantine.

In Texas, for example, health authorities required some people who had contact with Mr. Duncan to be monitored by health professionals to be sure their temperatures were properly tracked, said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the C.D.C. director.

“Ebola is scary — it’s a deadly disease,” he said. “But we know how to stop it.”

He added, “Health workers throughout the U.S. need to think Ebola.”

The number of travelers from the affected West African countries is relatively small, and Dr. Frieden said the measures were unlikely to be disruptive. Only about 150 people a day come to the United States from the three countries, and the five airports receive about 94 percent of them.

In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, local workers trained by the C.D.C. have been screening people as they depart from Africa. Of the roughly 36,000 travelers who left the three countries over the past two months, about a quarter came to the United States, officials said. Of those, just 77 had symptoms, such as a fever. Most were related to malaria, a disease spread by mosquitoes. None were Ebola, Dr. Frieden said.

The last large-scale effort to stop a disease at American airports came during the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a viral infection that may spread through the air. Travelers were given yellow cards that explained its signs and symptoms and were told they should seek medical care if they developed symptoms. But there was no American requirement that people flying in from countries with SARS cases have their temperatures taken.

There have been calls to ban travel from the affected countries altogether, but Dr. Frieden said that would be counterproductive. It would harm the surging international effort underway to quell the disease in West Africa, he said, because health and aid workers traveling to the region would not be able to return.

Dr. Frieden said the response to SARS was a cautionary tale: The outbreak cost the world more than $40 billion in what he said were “unnecessary and ineffective travel and trade changes.”

“Banning travel would do more harm than good, and paradoxically, it would increase the risk to Americans,” Dr. Frieden said. “People going in have to come out, too. The ability to respond to the outbreak would be undermined.”

The federal government has had substantial legal authority to take broad actions to stop people from coming into the country with infectious diseases since the passage of the National Quarantine Act of 1893, Professor Markel said. The law has been changed in the century since, but it still gives the federal government substantial power in the face of a deadly outbreak.

Historically, American health authorities have had elaborate systems to check immigrants’ health. On Ellis Island, for example, medical workers gave immigrants full medical examinations and even took cultures of bodily fluids, Professor Markel said. There were facilities nearby where the immigrants could be held while waiting for results. But those days were different: Many traveled for days or weeks to reach the United States, giving diseases ample time to surface.