Flights from China carrying U.S. State Department evacuees and other American citizens were expected to arrive the first week of February at four military installations across the country, where passengers will be screened and quarantined for the coronavirus that has sickened at least 17,000 people worldwide.
During the first week of February, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Travis Air Force Base, both in California, as well as Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and Fort Carson, Colorado, were preparing to host the evacuees, according to Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
The evacuees, who could number more than 1,000, are in addition to 195 federal employees, family members and U.S. citizens, rather than the initially reported 210, who arrived at March Reserve Air Base, California, Jan. 29 and placed under a federal quarantine order Jan 31.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed an agreement Feb. 1 with the Department of Health and Human Services to house up to 1,000 American citizens, family members and permanent residents fleeing the spread of the virus in China.
Messonnier said Feb. 3 that four Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teams have been dispatched to the DoD military installations to prepare for their arrival.
“These passengers, like the ones at March Air Reserve Base, will be under federal quarantine that will last 14 days from when the planes left China," Messonnier said. “Medical staff will monitor the health of these people, including temperature check and observations for medical symptoms.”
Col. Charles Dockery, commander of MCAS Miramar, told base personnel and family members Feb. 3 that base operations will continue as normal during the evacuees’ stay, and he asked for “patience as [he] anticipates minor changes to daily life around the base.”
In a message posted to the installation’s social media pages, Dockery reassured personnel and families that if a quarantined patient is suspected of having the virus, he or she will be transported off base for medical treatment.
He added that evacuees will have no contact with Defense Department personnel and urged Marines, sailors and family members to protect evacuees’ privacy by not taking photos of them or their living quarters.
“I am asking for your support as we host a group of people undergoing an uncomfortable transition … I know the Marine Corps family is a generous family. We will work to a process where you can contribute to the well-being of those we are supporting,” Dockery wrote.
At Travis Air Force Base, the evacuees will be housed at the Westwind Inn lodging facility, according to a command statement. Guests currently staying at the lodge are being relocated to other facilities and all reservations and requests for temporary lodging are being redirected.
“There is not yet a projected date for re-opening availability, but as soon as we have an update, this will be pushed out,” Travis officials said.
At Fort Carson, officials are readying lodging at the Colorado Army National Guard Regional Training Institute of Excellence, located “outside of the living and work areas of soldiers, civilians and family members.”
“Evacuees will not have access to any post locations other than assigned housing,” Fort Carson officials said.
As of Feb. 3, the U.S. had 11 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV, including two who did not travel to China but contracted the virus from a close family member or friend who recently returned from China.
The other nine U.S. cases are among those who had traveled to China.
According to Messonnier, 167 persons with suspected cases of the virus tested negative and the CDC has 82 tests pending.
The government sponsored flights come at a time when the U.S. is implementing new travel restrictions on anyone coming from China.
The White House last weekend declared a public health emergency and began barring foreign nationals who recently traveled to China from entering the United States, with some exceptions.
In additions, Americans and permanent residents who have traveled to China in the past 14 days and are on a commercial flight will be diverted to one of 11 airports for screening.
Passengers who traveled to Hubei province or Wuhan will be quarantined for 14 days at a location near their airport. Those who traveled in any other region in mainland China will be screened, and if they don’t display symptoms, will be allowed to travel on to their final destination and asked to remain home for up to 14 days, Messonnier said.
Officials with China’s Foreign Ministry on Feb. 3 criticized the U.S. for taking such measures, which they said are beyond the World Health Organizations recommendations.
“The US is turning from overconfidence to fear and overreaction and banning the entry of foreigners who traveled to China in the past 14 days is suspected to be violating civil rights instead of reducing risks of virus spreading," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Messonnier defended the steps being taken, however, calling the rapid spread of the virus “an unprecedented situation.”
“A couple of weeks ago, there were 41 cases in China. This morning, the numbers are 17,000 with a novel coronavirus the population doesn’t have any immunity to. Because things are moving so quickly, we don’t have the information base we want,” she said.
The death toll from 2019-nCoV has risen to 362, including the first death outside China, reported in the Philippines Feb. 2. There have been no deaths in the U.S. Messonnier said of the 11 cases confirmed in the country, symptoms range from mild to patients hospitalized requiring oxygen.
The Defense Health Agency, which is responsible for providing health care and services to active duty military personnel, family members and military retirees, said the Defense Department is “closely coordinating with CDC to ensure accurate and timely information is made available to our stakeholders.”
DHA officials declined to answer specific questions about steps being taken at military hospitals and clinics should the infection become more widespread.
“CDC is responsible for all control measures surrounding this situation. DoD medical facilities stand ready to assist if called upon by the CDC,” a Defense Health Agency official said.
Officials at Madigan Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, where one case has been confirmed, said they are closely monitoring developments and coordinating with 1st Corps, Army Public Health and local public health authorities on prevention and response planning.
Madigan’s preventive medicine team also has placed a physician on call around the clock to provide consults on exposure concerns as needed.
“We are working closely with community partners in order to ensure that we keep patients and all of Madigan’s staff informed,” said Lt. Col. Paul Faestel, deputy director of the hospital’s Department of Preventive Medicine.
On Feb. 2, the U.S. Navy ordered sailors traveling in China to return immediately to their installations, where they will be isolated for 14 days, according to the Pentagon’s Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Chris Aquilino ordered the measures in a message to commanders obtained by the publication. It follows Defense Department guidance on Jan. 31 encouraging personnel to take precautions against the virus, to include heeding State Department travel advisories, which have warned U.S. citizens not to travel to China.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper also said personnel could expect specific guidance from their commands regarding travel and quarantines.
“This outbreak is of high-risk to travelers and there are no precautions available to protect against the identified increased threat,” the Defense Department advisory stated.
Indo-Pacific Command has banned all nonessential travel to mainland China, according to Stars and Stripes.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Jarred Evans, a former University of Cincinnatti cornerback and backup quarterback who plays for the Wuhan Berserkers football team, shared his story with ABC News about life in quarantine, which includes enjoying the California sunshine at March Air Reserve Base and getting ready for a Super Bowl viewing party.
“As you can see, everyone is just relaxing outside, enjoying themselves ... another day in the base, just getting ready to have some fun,” Evans said.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.