California Base to House US Evacuees from China for Coronavirus Quarantine

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Passengers arriving on a China Southern Airlines flight from Changsha in China are screened for the new type of coronavirus.
Passengers arriving on a China Southern Airlines flight from Changsha in China are screened for the new type of coronavirus upon their arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta international airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on Jan. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Ngugi)

March Air Reserve Base in southern California will provide temporary housing for about 200 U.S. citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China, which is the center of a coronavirus outbreak. They are arriving aboard a chartered flight Wednesday, the Pentagon said.

Military personnel will not have contact with the evacuees, who include State Department employees, dependents and other U.S. citizens. They will be cared for by the Department of Health & Human Services during an expected three-day quarantine.

In addition, "evacuees will not have access to any base location other than their assigned housing," Alyssa Farah, the Pentagon's press secretary, said in a statement.

The charter flight was originally scheduled to land at Ontario International Airport in Riverside County, but the State Department and the Centers for Disease Control decided overnight that the base, about 22 miles south of San Bernardino, is better suited to accommodate the passengers.

Related: US Evacuees Departing China Amid Coronavirus Outbreak Diverted to Air Force Base

There are no immediate indications that any of the passengers have the coronavirus, officials said.

At a refueling stop for the charter flight in Anchorage, Alaska, on Wednesday, the passengers underwent two sets of health screenings and were cleared to continue to March.

"A big cheer let out on the plane when we landed," passenger Patrick Stockstill, of Rhode Island, told ABC News upon landing. "I'm tired and exhausted mentally and physically, but happy to be back and just really grateful the United States government came through for us."

The evacuation to March -- home to the 452nd Operations Group, which trains and equips crews for aerial refueling and strategic airlift -- followed delicate negotiations with the Chinese, who have put Wuhan, a city of about 11 million in central Hubei province, on lockdown.

In the effort to contain coronavirus outbreak, Chinese authorities have also put 15 other cities on lockdown in what is believed to be the largest quarantine in history.

Japan, Australia, Britain and other nations have also sent in aircraft to evacuate their citizens; British officials said that their returning citizens would be quarantined for two weeks.

China's Xinhua news agency reported that President Xi Jinping had ordered China's military to join in combating the epidemic by assisting local authorities and contributing medical teams.

The respiratory illness, which is marked by pneumonia-like symptoms, has killed at least 132 to date and infected nearly 6,000, according to Xinhua.

There have been no reports thus far of any deaths outside China from the coronavirus, but the Centers for Disease Control has reported five cases of coronavirus infections in the U.S. among travelers returning from overseas. More than 10 other countries have also reported cases of infections.

"Right now, there is no spread of this virus in our communities at home," Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said at a news briefing Tuesday in Washington. The CDC is monitoring cases of possible infection in 126 people in 26 states, he added.

At the same news conference, Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said there is no basis at this time to declare a public health emergency but added, "I won't hesitate at all to invoke any steps we need to take" when appropriate.

"Americans should know that this is a potentially very serious public health threat but, at this point, Americans should not worry for their own safety," Azar said. "This is a very fast-moving, constantly changing situation."

There have been no reports of infections among U.S. military personnel worldwide, but American military authorities in Japan and South Korea issued precautionary warnings when local officials reported infections among civilians living near bases.

At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, John Rood, the Pentagon's policy director, said, "Obviously, the concern as we're seeing with the coronavirus -- what begins in one place can rapidly move to others."

On Monday, U.S. Forces Korea put out a notice cautioning personnel to seek medical care when experiencing flu-like symptoms after South Korean officials reported a case of coronavirus infection in a man living near two U.S. bases -- Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base.

"There are no known cases where the virus is being transmitted from person to person in Korea," U.S. Forces Korea said, but "this is cold and flu season, and the coronavirus shares similar symptoms."

Similar cautionary warnings were put out to U.S. military personnel in Japan.

On its website, the Military Health System said that those contracting a respiratory illness shouldn't immediately fear that they may have the coronavirus. "It is far more likely to be a more common malady," such as influenza, MHS said.

The website quoted Dr. (Lt. Cmdr.) David Shih, an epidemiologist with the Defense Health Agency, as saying that those experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness -- coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath and fever -- should avoid contact with others.

"Don't think you're being super dedicated by showing up to work when ill," Shih said. "Likewise, if you're a duty supervisor, please don't compel your workers to show up when they're sick."

Lacking specific treatment for coronavirus, "we must be extra vigilant about basic prevention measures: frequent handwashing, effective cough and sneeze hygiene, avoiding sick individuals, and self-isolating when sick," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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