One placed under mandatory quarantine at March ARB after returning from China

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Rear Adm. Dr. Nancy Knight takes questions from reporters during a Jan. 29 news conference held at the Riverside University Health System – Medical Center Education Center. Valley News/Courtesy photo

One of the passengers aboard a plane chartered by the U.S. State Department evacuating government employees from the Wuhan province of China due to the coronavirus outbreak was placed under a mandatory quarantine by Dr. Cameron Kaiser, public health officer of Riverside County, Thursday, Jan. 30, after the passenger attempted to leave March Air Reserve Base where passengers are being held under observation.

The plane arrived at March Air Reserve Base Wednesday, Jan. 29, just after 8 a.m. Passengers were cordoned off from military personnel.

The mandatory order required the passenger to stay at March ARB for the entire incubation period or until otherwise cleared. The action was taken as a result of the unknown risk to the public should someone leave March ARB early without undergoing a full health evaluation, according to a press release issued by the Riverside Department of Public Health.

The passenger remained at March ARB until their health status was confirmed, despite officials calling the quarantine voluntary during a news conference held Wednesday, Jan. 29.

“When I talked to them about their willingness to stay to be fully evaluated over three days or so, all of those that I talked to were very willing to do that. … They want to protect their family, they want to protect others,” Dr. Chris Braden, representative for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during the news conference.

The passengers will be checked for temperature and respiratory symptoms every 12 hours over the course of the next two days.

When asked if any passengers would be allowed to leave the base before the three-day evaluation period is up, Rear Adm. Dr. Nancy Knight, director of the Division of Global Health Protection at the CDC, said that any discussion about departure “will be just that, a discussion.”

Braden said that after the evaluation period, passengers will have the option to go home, but they will continue to be monitored for the remainder of the virus’ two-week incubation period by their local public health agency.

“If we think that a person is a danger to the community, we can institute an individual quarantine for that person, and we will,” he said.

To date more than 8,000 cases have been reported of the deadly illness which has claimed the lives of 170 in China. So far, six cases have been reported in the U.S., with two of those cases in California, one in Orange County and a second in Los Angeles County.

Health officials reported the sixth person to contract the disease is the first U.S. case of person-to-person spread of the coronavirus Thursday, Jan. 30. The man, who had not been to China, is married to a Chicago woman who got sick after she returned from a trip to Wuhan.

There have been other cases reported of the infectious virus spreading to others in a household or workplace in China and elsewhere, but Thursday’s case was the first in the U.S. of person-to-person transmission.

Officials said the threat to the public remains low.

“And we aim to keep it that way,” Kaiser said.

The group aboard Wednesday’s flight was initially scheduled to land at Ontario International Airport before being diverted to March ARB, where passengers, officials announced, would be held for three to 14 days. The reason for the diversion? Passenger comfort, according to Braden.

“The main factor that was taken into consideration is the comfort of these passengers who have their own traumas coming from this area,” he said. “We think that the base is probably the most comfortable accommodation for them.”

Kaiser said that there were “a lot of concerns about this flight landing” and that people were questioning the reasoning behind bringing the passengers to March ARB.

“They are scared, you are scared. We understand that,” Kaiser said.” There is a lot about this virus that we don’t know but one thing that we need to keep in mind is that these folks have to come home.”

Kaiser said that the base perimeter would help officials to keep both the general public and the passengers safe.

“We have an appropriate plan in place to deal with the situation we have at hand and good people on the ground to actually implement that plan,” he said.

Passengers were screened before boarding the plane in Wuhan, both by Chinese and the U.S. State Department medical specialists. Another screening took place in Anchorage, Alaska, where the plane stopped for refueling with more screenings happening at the base, according to Knight who developed the protocol for the return flight for the passengers. Medical professionals also monitored all passengers on the flight.

“During the course of these screening processes, we check for symptoms that would be concerning of the coronavirus including fever, cough and other respiratory symptoms,” Knight said. “We also check for factors that would make us consider an individual as higher risk.”

High risk factors include exposure to someone with known coronavirus in Wuhan, close contact with someone who might be living with or have contact with someone with the virus and health care workers who might have been exposed.

Knight said that the same processes were being conducted at March ARB and that no one in Anchorage responded to the questions indicating they were high risk.

“We are reassessing that now,” she said.

Among the passengers were nine children, the youngest of which was just 1-month-old.

During their time on the base, the passengers will not have access to base personnel and will be kept at the quarters or residences assigned to them, Braden said.

“We do think that the risk for the general communities in the United States is very low,” Braden said, adding that, for now the CDC would continue to keep the threat that way by using “basic public health functions.”

“We want to identify anybody who is ill, we want to isolate them so that they don’t spread the infection to others,” Braden said. “We want to identify other contacts they have had while they are ill so we can monitor them too and that is the basis of what we do in public health for any infection and certainly what we do in this instance and that is what we are doing with these patriots that have come back to the United States and are at the Air Force base now.”

Riverside County 5th District Supervisor Jeff Hewitt said that the safety and security of residents was a top priority and that the county understood many people “may be nervous right now.

“Understand that we are committed to your safety and are taking all precautions to ensure that all the passengers and our residents are safe,” he said.

City News Service contributed to this story.

Kim Harris can be reached by email at valleyeditor@reedermedia.com.