Nearly 200 Americans airlifted from China placed under coronavirus quarantine

Reuters) – Nearly 200 Americans evacuated from China and voluntarily confined to a California air base for 72 hours of coronavirus screenings were placed under a mandatory 14-day quarantine on Friday, as U.S. health officials intensified precautions against spread of the disease.

FILE PHOTO: Director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) doctor Nancy Messonnier speaks about the public health response to the outbreak of the coronavirus during a news conference at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Amanda Voisard.

The move by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), its first quarantine in 50 years, was announced a day after the State Department issued its strongest warning against travel to China due to an epidemic of the new virus, which has claimed more than 200 lives.

“We are preparing as if this is the next pandemic, but we are hoping that is not the case,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center For Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a telephone interview from the agency’s headquarters in Atlanta.

The United States angered China on Friday after it issued a travel warning over a coronavirus epidemic that has been declared a global emergency and led to increasing supply problems for businesses.

Originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the flu-like coronavirus first identified earlier this month has resulted in the deaths of 213 people in China, out of a total number of cases approaching 10,000.

The quarantine order requires all 195 Americans airlifted from Wuhan to remain isolated in special housing at March Air Reserve Base near Los Angeles for the entire 14-day incubation period of the disease. The two-week period runs from the time they left China on Tuesday.

“This is a precautionary and preventive step to maximize the containment of the virus in the interest of the health of the American public,” the CDC said in a statement.

SCREENING TEST LIMITED

The CDC said on Wednesday, the day the evacuees landed, that they were being kept, on a voluntary basis, at the base for at least 72 hours while they underwent medical evaluation for symptoms of the virus and CDC laboratory tests.

The plan then was to allow the passengers to return to their homes, absent any indication of exposure or illness, leaving state and local health authorities to continue monitoring the evacuees through the remainder of the incubation period.

That plan would have permitted members of the group to take public transportation home. CDC officials said on Wednesday that people incubating the infection before symptoms appear are generally not regarded as contagious.

But Messonnier on Friday cited emerging evidence that the virus can be spread by someone who is infected but not yet showing signs of being ill, which include fever, cough and other respiratory symptoms.

The CDC also pointed to a limitation of the screening test it had developed for the virus. Even if a test result comes back negative, “it does not conclusively mean an individual is at no risk of developing the disease over the likely 14-day incubation period,” the agency said in a statement.

“We are looking in people’s noses to see if they have the virus there,” but CDC is not certain the test is specific enough to identify whether someone is incubating the virus, Messonnier said. “This test is a point-in-time test that should not be relied on to predict whether this person will become ill.”

TRIED TO LEAVE BASE

The blanket 14-day CDC quarantine for all 195 evacuees was instituted after one of the passengers, who was not identified, sought to leave the base without permission on Wednesday night. He was immediately slapped with an individual quarantine order issued by Riverside County health authorities.

It was not clear whether that incident played a role in the CDC’s quarantine order on Friday.

As of Thursday, none of the group at the base had exhibited signs of the disease, local health officials said.

The evacuees, who were flown aboard a government-chartered cargo jet to California after a refuelling stop in Alaska, consist of State Department employees from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, their immediate family members and some other Americans who were welcomed to join the flight, the CDC said.

The State Department said Friday it is working with U.S. and Chinese agencies to arrange for additional flights of Americans out of Wuhan.

Washington also plans to evacuate non-essential government employees and family members from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and consulates in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenyang due to the coronavirus outbreak, a State Department official said on Thursday.

The CDC has tallied six confirmed U.S. cases of coronavirus, none fatal, including the first known transmission of the virus from one person to another within the United States – a couple in Illinois.

Additional reporting by Deena Beasley in Culver City, Calif. and by Manas Mishra and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Amy Caren Daniel, Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler

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