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Evacuees From COVID-19 Outbreak In Japan Arrive At Lackland; 234 Now Quarantined

More than 150 coronavirus evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Tokyo landed at Lackland Air Force Base early Monday morning, bringing the number of quarantined people to at least 234.

The State Department announced this weekend that it would send a charter plane to evacuate Americans from the ship -- which they shared with more than 3,000 others.

Dr William Walters, managing director of operational medicine in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Medical Services, explained during a Monday press briefing that about 340 people were taken off the cruise ship.

They were transported to two aircraft -- one slated to fly to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and another slated to fly to Travis Air Force Base in California.

The 747 flying to Lackland carried about 150 people, he said. Seven passengers tested positive for the coronavirus and were isolated from the rest. Another two people developed fevers on the plane and were also isolated.

Officials used plastic to separate the plane into sections. "That plastic is like ten feet tall and has one entrance [and] one exit at the back of that isolation area," Walters said, "that both protects the rest of the passengers and the rest of the crew from any spread."

When the flight landed at Lackland, at least 144 stayed at the base. A handful who tested positive were moved to a facility in Omaha, Nebraska.

A statement from the Defense Department on Monday said that the passengers who remained in Lackland would be quarantined for two weeks.

The flight to Travis carried about 177 people, Walters said. Seven passengers tested positive for the coronavirus and were isolated from the rest. Another three developed fevers. When the flight landed at Travis, at least 170 people stayed in California.

In a statement on Monday, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg reported: “Our extensive coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control, Joint Base San Antonio and our other state and local partners has gone according to plan.”

He added, “As of today, the risk to the general public of contracting COVID-19 continues to remain low. Every precaution has been taken to keep the public isolated from these travelers who are in a precautionary quarantine and any travelers who have shown symptoms of the virus. Our residents should continue to go about their lives.”

On Saturday, the Americans aboard the cruise ship received a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo explaining the repatriation process.

The letter said that "to fulfill our government’s responsibilities to U.S. citizens under our rules and practices, as well as to reduce the burden on the Japanese healthcare system, the U.S. government recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring."

A joint statement from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained that these "measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease."

"We understand this is frustrating and an adjustment," the letter added, "but these measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease."

They are the second batch of evacuees to JBSA-Lackland, bringing the total number of people housed there to at least 234, according to the Defense Department.

In early February, 91 people with American connections landed at Lackland to begin a two-week quarantine. They came from China's Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak, and were isolated in a base hotel complex. Their quarantine was slated to end on Feb. 20.

One individual from that first group showed signs of sickness and is currently receiving treatment in isolation at Methodist Texsan Hospital.

The HHS/CDC statement explained that this second group would be housed separately from the first group.

The Defense Department noted on Saturday that Lackland’s coronavirus quarantine zone would remain available through mid-March. Lackland is equipped to handle up to 250 quarantined people.

More information about the coronavirus disease is available at the CDC’s Novel Coronavirus 2019 website. Updates for Bexar County residents are available from Metro Health here.

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.
Fernando Ortiz Jr. contributed to this report.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.