Dozens of men, women and children -- all American evacuees from China -- landed in a privately charted plane at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio on Friday. U.S. health officials were prepared to house and monitor the passengers, who may have been exposed to the coronavirus outbreak. They will be quarantined at an on-base hotel for two weeks.
The flight from Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province, landed at Travis Air Force Base in California. The travelers were then moved to a plane, which transported them to Lackland.
Capt. Jennifer McQuiston, deputy director of Centers for Disease Control's Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, explained in a briefing what happened next:
"We escorted the passengers off the plane. We screened them. We took their temperatures. And I am happy to report that we did not find any evidence of illness among the passengers who landed here today," she said.
The hotel is isolated from the rest of the base. Its perimeter will be fenced off, and federal marshals will patrol the region.
“We have contracted with a company who is experienced and has trained their personnel [on] how to handle the housekeeping needs of these evacuees while they're in quarantine,” McQuiston explained on Thursday. “That includes bringing them food, taking care of their rooms, linens, laundry. All of that is being handled by personnel who are trained how to go in there.”
The evacuees will share hotel rooms. Larger families, she explained on Friday, may receive multiple rooms. "There are small children that need the care of their parents," she added.
Medical personnel will monitor the people during the two-week quarantine. "We're very confident that we can keep the quarantined people here safe," McQuiston said, "and that we can contain coronavirus if is found in any of them."
During the Thursday briefing, McQuiston explained that those personnel will be wearing personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Military personnel will not have any contact with the evacuees.
If anyone shows signs of illness, McQuiston explained, they will be transported to one of several area hospitals prepared to treat them.
"The hospitals that are being identified have been identified by San Antonio Metro Health," she said, "and I think that we want to make sure they can do their jobs and ensure the safety of patients."
Lackland is one of five bases around the country selected by the Department of Health and Human Services to house people who are at risk of being infected with coronavirus. The others are Fort Carson, Colorado; Travis Air Force Base, California; Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, and Camp Ashland, a National Guard base about 30 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska.
McQuiston was asked on Friday about special kits that may be used to test for the presence of coronavirus and when they may be available to the public.
"I have heard that kits are shipping out from CDC," she said, "but I don't have details on timing for what will arrive here in Texas. I will also tell you that just shipping the kits out doesn't mean that a state is actively ready to start testing. They actually have to validate the test in their own laboratory with the personnel who are going to be using it, and that can take a little while."
McQuiston suggested that members of the public might be able to assist the evacuees.
"I know that people who are worried about these individuals might want to help them," she admitted. "I think the best thing you can do is reach out to local Red Cross. I know that the Red Cross is connected with our teams who are working with the individuals, and they may be able to identify comfort items or other ways that the community members can support these evacuees to show them good San Antonio hospitality."
Lackland Air Force Base officials have attempted to quell the concerns of Lackland residents. They've created a website with updates and hosted a town hall on Wednesday.
About 150 base residents and military personnel asked questions about how the coronavirus was spread and how the base would handle security.
McQuiston was one of the experts taking questions.
"The types of questions we heard had to do with how the individuals were going to be kept isolated from others," she said, "and we did provide information about that their housing was completely separate. … And I think that with that type of information being provided, hopefully individuals have been reassured."
The Department of Defense ordered the media excluded from that event.
McQuiston said she understood why this kind of operation might make some people nervous.
"I think it can seem alarming when you see a big national response ramp up like this," she said, "but one of the reasons we are doing that is it's a brand new emerging virus and so there could be some uncertainty with that. I think we want to be very prepared."
A statement from base officials emphasized to base personnel and their families that the quarantine operation does not pose any risk to them. It explained that the quarantine operation will not affect regular activities on the military installation. For example, the officials explained, "the 37th Training Wing will continue to receive the arrival of new trainees, and BMT graduation events will continue as usual."
Joint Base San Antonio will continue to update the public on a dedicated website.
The quarantine operation comes as China grapples with an outbreak that includes more than 24,000 cases and more than 400 deaths, according to reports from the CDC. More than two dozen countries have reported cases of the virus. The CDC has reported at least a dozen cases in Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin.