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Coronavirus outbreak: Americans returning from China being held at California air base

A Boeing 747 on a charter flight from Wuhan, China, arrives Wednesday at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County.
A Boeing 747 on a charter flight from Wuhan, China, arrives Wednesday at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Two hundred and one Americans, including a month-old baby and teenagers, will be held for three days at the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County and monitored by federal, state and county health officials after fleeing from a coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Passengers arrived at the base Wednesday morning after the U.S. State Department chartered a private plane to evacuate diplomats stationed at the Wuhan consulate and their families. The plane — which was the only way out of the locked down city — was large enough that other Americans were also able to flee from the epicenter, where more than a thousand cases have been reported.

The passengers aren’t under an official quarantine, but Dr. Chris Braden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters during a news conference later in the day that all seemed to cooperate with the three-day hold.

At the time of boarding, said Rear Adm. Nancy Knight with the CDC, none of the passengers were deemed “high risk.”

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“We try and balance how to protect these people, how to respect their rights, how to be the least restrictive as possible and still be very careful about evaluation they go under so that everybody is safe,” said Braden. “This is a balance. If we can do that without a federal quarantine order that restricts people and takes away their rights, that’s what we’ll do.”

During the hold, passengers will be housed in a cordoned area at the base, where they’ll undergo lab work and have their temperature monitored every 12 hours. Officials said lab work results could be turned around in less than 72 hours.

A mobile healthcare unit will also be near the site for any injuries.

Passengers are encouraged to remain at the base for another 14 days, the duration of the incubation period. However, if passengers decide to return to their home states, area public officials will continue to monitor them for the same time frame.

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If a passenger is deemed a danger to the community, Braden said they would issue a quarantine for that person. Local county officials would likely take similar action, he added.

Officials dressed in white protective suits were seen Wednesday morning loading passengers’ luggage onto three buses. Those buses were later driven to the side of the plane where passengers were gathered and then taken inside the base.

The chartered plane was initially bound for Ontario International Airport before higher-ups diverted the aircraft to the base, which has facilities capable of housing passengers for roughly two weeks, Braden said.

Passengers were screened before boarding the flight by Chinese and U.S. officials, again when the plane stopped in Anchorage to refuel, and again when they arrived in Riverside County, Knight said.

The new strain of coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, can cause respiratory illness and pneumonia. It was originally thought to be spreading only from animals to people in central China, but there are now indications it is also spreading among people.

It is unclear how deadly the virus is or how easily it spreads. Most reported cases have occurred in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, and most patients elsewhere had recently traveled there.

But the tally of fatalities and confirmed cases, as well as the virus’ geographic reach, has increased daily, prompting the U.S. State Department to recommend that Americans avoid traveling to China. Some airlines have begun restricting flights out of the entire country, not just Wuhan.

Asked if he was considering a ban on travel to China, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said he did not want to get ahead of any decisions or talk about internal deliberations on the matter.

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“But the American people should know that there are enormous efforts underway by the United States government to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the American people and to reduce the risk all around the globe,” he said. “So we’re confident the World Health Organization, supported by the United States and other organizations that have the capacity, will help the Chinese government push back against this real risk. We’ll take all the resources we can manage to do that.”

So far only five cases have been diagnosed in the United States, one each in Los Angeles and Orange counties, Arizona, Washington state and Chicago.

Braden described the new virus as part of a family of viruses primarily responsible for the common cold. He cited other similar respiratory viruses such as SARS and MERS that emerged in the past.

Severe cases of illnesses caused by those coronaviruses were extreme because the infected person already had severe illnesses, he said.

“We need to understand more about milder illnesses,” Braden said. “We need to know more about when people become infectious. Those are things we don’t know.”


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