City and federal health officials confirmed Friday that two people evacuated from the cruise ship Diamond Princess and brought to Lackland Air Force Base carried the COVID-19 infection.
The Centers for Disease Control, Texas Department of State Health Services and the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District briefed the media on Friday and updated the number of confirmed cases in Bexar County to three. They added that the risk to the public remains low.
In an statement, the CDC also said it "expects additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 from within the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship cohort and will share information with the public as appropriate."
Metro Health Director Dr. Dawn Emerick explained "that the federally ordered quarantine is functioning as it should. Those evacuees, who are in quarantine on Lackland Air Force Base, who test positive for COVID-19 remain in isolation from the general public and other evacuees.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services noted in a statement on Friday that it is using the Texas Center for Infectious Disease hospital to treat patients who showed symptoms of COVID-19. The CDC explained that patients with the infection reported symptoms that included fever, cough and shortness of breath.
The news came the day after 90 evacuees from China housed at Lackland were medically cleared after a two-week quarantine and were allowed to go home. Health officials reported Thursday that the evacuees had emerged from the likely incubation period for this virus.
Dr. Anita Kurian, who directs the Communicable Disease Division of the city's health department, explained that the patients, who were evacuated from China's Hubei Province, "did not develop any symptoms, and now they're considered no risk."
A statement from the CDC about the cleared patients stressed that "[i]t is important to know that these people being released from quarantine pose no health risk to the surrounding community, or to the communities they will be returning to."
One traveler tested positive for COVID-19 during the quarantine period and was transferred to Methodist Texsan hospital, becoming Bexar County's first case. On Thursday, the hospital announced the individual was treated and transferred to another medical facility "for ongoing evaluation." It did not identify the facility, and it did not identify the patient.
The evacuees from the Diamond Princess, which was docked near Tokyo, Japan, were flown from Japan to the U.S. in mid-February.
In a statement following their arrival at Lackland, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said that "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.”
Also on Thursday, the CDC announced it would no longer remove anyone in a coronavirus quarantine from the on-base housing facility to test them for COVID-19.
The testing will now occur on the base facilities, and only seriously sick evacuees will go to the hospital. The original plan had been to move them to a hospital for testing if they had symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, including a fever.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff had a problem with that, as did Emerick, the Metro Health director. On TPR's "The Source," Emerick said Thursday that it made no sense for people with minimal symptoms to go to off-base hospitals for COVID-19 testing and then remain in isolation at the hospital until the results came in.
"We don't want folks sitting in our hospitals for three to four days when we don't even know what the test results are," she said. "That puts an amazing amount of strain and resources on our health care system that is 100 percent avoidable."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Nirenberg met with federal health officials on Thursday to discuss the details of the new protocols.
Emerick also warned that even though current procedures have been successful, that didn't mean the city could do the same again and again with future evacuees.
"I would say that it's working now," she said, "but I don't think the system is strong enough to take on any additional burden at this time."
Emerick said the quarantine was financially straining the city's public health resources. She said her counterparts in other communities facing similar situations felt a similar burden.
"And we are all in alignment, 100%," she said, "that we should be getting financial compensation for this."
It was not clear if Lackland was expected to house any more evacuees. Defense Department officials said the base can house up to 250 quarantined people.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.
Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@TPR.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.
Fernando Ortiz Jr. contributed to this report.