U.S. citizens returning from China arrive in Riverside County, officials address fears, questions, concerns

CDC representative Dr. Chris Braden takes questions from reporters during a Jan. 29 news conference held at the Riverside University Health System - Medical Center Education Center Wednesday, Jan. 29. Valley News/Courtesy photo

A private plane chartered by the U.S. State Department carrying more than 200 State Department employees, their families and other U.S. citizens landed at March Air Reserve Base this morning after being evacuated from Wuhan China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

To date more than 6,000 cases have been reported of the deadly illness which has claimed the lives of 132 in China. So far, only five 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, but officials say the threat to the public remains low.

“And we aim to keep it that way,” Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser said during a Wednesday morning news conference. “If there is an unthinkable event and we need to transport somebody to the hospital immediately we can take every available precaution so that the public remains safe.”

The group was initially scheduled to land at Ontario International Airport before being diverted to March ARB, where passengers will stay for three to 14 days. The reason for the diversion? Passenger comfort, according to the CDC during a news conference at the Riverside University Health System – Medical Center Education Center.

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

While not under mandatory quarantine, the group will be housed on March ARB, Braden said during the news conference.

There are a lot of concerns about this flight landing and people have recently asked the question why,” Kaiser said. “They are scared, you are scared. We understand that. 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 Rear Admiral Dr. Nancy Knight, director of the Division of Global Health Protection at the CDC. Knight 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.”

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

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 healthcare 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.

The plane touched down at March ARB at 8:11 a.m. The passengers remained at the base and were cordoned off from military personnel. While they are not under mandatory quarantine orders, they are expected to remain under observation at the base for 72 hours.

“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,” Braden said.

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

When asked if any passengers will be allowed to leave the base before the three-day evaluation period is up, Knight said that any discussion about departure “will be just that, a discussion.”

Braden said that after the three-day 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.

Among the passengers were nine children, the youngest of which is a 1-month-old.

Support for the evacuees would not negatively impact readiness or critical operations on the base, the Pentagon said in a published statement.

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.

“The coronavirus is spreading rapidly in China,” Braden said. “We think it is appropriate that our citizens in the epicenter in Wuhan be repatriated home for their own safety. We are here to ensure their safety, the safety of those on the base, in the community and elsewhere. Having said that we do think that the risk for the general communities in the United States is very low.”

Braden said for now the CDC would continue to keep the threat low 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,” he 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 is 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.