195 Americans Released From Coronavirus Quarantine At Southern California Air Base

Feb 11, 2020
Originally published on February 11, 2020 4:53 pm

Updated at 4 p.m. ET

The 195 Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan, China, last month have now been released from the first mandatory quarantine the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered in more than 50 years.

The group, which faced numerous health screenings both in China and during their trip and quarantine, has now been "medically cleared," health officials said Tuesday, making it possible for them to leave the March Air Reserve Base in Southern California.

"Our guests at March Air Reserve Base are happy to see an official end today to their 14-day quarantine and are looking forward to returning home. We wish them well!" Riverside University Health System - Public Health said via Facebook Tuesday, posting an image of the evacuees gathered together outside, tossing blue face masks into the air.

While the evacuees are glad to see the end of an ordeal that began at the epicenter of a global health emergency, there are also some mixed feelings about disbanding a group that has grown close.

"They're very excited to go home, and at the same time, we're kind of sad saying our goodbyes to each other," evacuee Matthew McCoy, who worked in Wuhan as a theme park designer, told NPR's Patti Neighmond.

"We've all created a family environment here," McCoy said, adding that many of the evacuees plan to stay in touch through special groups on Skype and other platforms.

McCoy says the group coped with the quarantine as a team, trying to maintain a positive attitude.

"We chose to work together," he said. "We chose to create classes and things like that. That made it more of a positive outlook. And we all helped each other. It's better than sitting around sulking and not doing anything."

There are no confirmed cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus among the 195 evacuees, the health system said in a statement disseminated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

"They have completed their final health check this morning, which included their symptom check and their temperature check," said Rear Adm. Dr. Nancy Knight of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Saying that it's now safe for the group to rejoin their communities and families, Knight added, "This is a huge celebration for all of us here at March Air Reserve Base."

Knight also stressed that the completion of the quarantine means that the evacuees have been determined to be entirely free of the virus that has now killed more than 1,100 people in China.

"They pose no health risk to themselves, to their families, to their places of work, to schools or their communities — no health risk of novel coronavirus from these individuals whatsoever," Knight said.

Knight also praised the evacuees, thanking them for their professionalism and cooperation over the past two weeks.

"They have been through a lot during these last few weeks, not just the two weeks of quarantine, but also during their time in Wuhan before flying to the United States," she said.

The quarantine group is a mix of U.S. diplomatic staff, businesspeople and families with children. They flew out of Wuhan in late January, on a jet that was chartered by the U.S. State Department.

As they celebrated the evacuees' release, Knight and Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County's public health officer, also noted that some members of the communities near the air base had shown their displeasure at the decision to house the quarantined group at the air base.

"Discrimination has been a significant problem," Knight said.

Replying to a question about the wider effects of those negative sentiments, she added, "I think it's really unfortunate that the workers at the base have had to endure this fear and discrimination in their communities here."

Describing the accounts of stigmatization that workers have shared with the medical staff, Knight said, "We've heard things like someone's young girl, their daughter, being discriminated against and called names at school ... because her mom worked at the base."

"We heard [about] another employee who was denied housing because she worked at the base," Knight added.

Situations like those prompted Kaiser to issue an open letter to the local community on Monday, refuting misperceptions about the evacuees and saying the people who work at March Air Reserve Base should not be subjected to confrontations and negative comments on social media.

As the quarantine order was lifted, Kaiser emphasized that the base, and everyone who works there, is safe. And he said no one in the group should be "outed."

"They don't need additional testing; they don't need to be shunned," he said.

"Fortunately, most of you have been very supportive and understanding of everything that these people have been through," Kaiser added.

During the quarantine, the evacuees have lived in a cordoned-off area of March Air Reserve Base, which is in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. While many of the evacuees were leaving immediately after the quarantine officially lifted Tuesday, some of them are staying an extra night for logistical reasons, planning to travel on Wednesday.

Noting the strict safety precautions under which the quarantined group lived, Knight said that with the coronavirus being unable to be transmitted from anyone who was more than 6 feet away, "there is no risk" of contracting the virus from someone who has it.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The quarantine has ended for the first group of Americans who were evacuated from China because of the coronavirus outbreak there. Nearly 200 people, including some children, have spent the last 14 days at the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, Calif. Most of them got on buses today to head to airports and then finally home. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Matthew McCoy is 55, lives in Shanghai and designs theme parks, large and small. He loves what he does, and last night was a good night.

MATTHEW MCCOY: The movie manufacturing company that does special effects like vehicles - they're - built the Mars rover vehicle, the "Ghostbusters" vehicle. And I got them together with a theme park overnight, so I've been putting that deal together all night.

NEIGHMOND: McCoy had been working in Wuhan, epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. And along with dozens of other evacuees, he's tried to make life here on the base as normal as possible. For example, they set up a daily town hall meeting.

MCCOY: After we got our medical checkup - this is basic information you get from the CDC. They tell you the direction where things are going. And the CDC is doing an outstanding job. The marshals are doing an outstanding job. You know, it's just a great situation where we had people with positive-thinking minds.

NEIGHMOND: They created classes in Zumba and finance and transformed the parking lot into a playground for the kids.

MCCOY: They had chalk glasses, or they had drawing classes, leather craft classes, puppeteering.

NEIGHMOND: Local volunteer groups donated toys and toiletries, candy and treats, even pizza for a Super Bowl party. Today, McCoy talks with us by Skype outside as people ready for departure.

MCCOY: I'm standing in the middle of the parking lot, looking at the CDC vehicles, the county emergency vehicles. And the nonprofit people are collecting all the bikes and toys and things this morning, taking them to the next base, Miramar.

NEIGHMOND: A base where other evacuees from China are now under quarantine.

The departure here is bittersweet. Of course, everyone's eager to get home. But after two weeks, bonds have been formed and friendships made.

MCCOY: We're kind of sad saying our, you know, goodbyes to each other. We've all created a family environment here, and we're putting it all together - connections with WeChat and some other chat groups and Skype groups.

NEIGHMOND: McCoy says they're going to stay in touch as long as they can.

MCCOY: This is a cool thing. I've had many invitations to go different cities and hang out at their place after this.

NEIGHMOND: There are some worries about leaving. People wonder - will they be shunned?

MCCOY: Some news media that will make a big deal out of it and make a drama case out of it and cause unnecessary stress to the public - you know, some people who are not as educated in medical background field, they're going to get very abstract and afraid and run the other way. That's the kind of stigmata. We're not zombies. Everything's cool. We're clear.

NEIGHMOND: Dr. Cameron Kaiser, public health officer for Riverside County.

CAMERON KAISER: The whole point of this two-week process is to give the public as much confidence as possible these people don't have it. They've been tested, in a few cases, multiple times. They've had thermometers pointed at their foreheads twice a day. They filled out tons of questionnaires.

NEIGHMOND: And remained quarantined since January 29.

KAISER: Which is well in excess of any reasonable incubation period. You come out of all that. You're asymptomatic. Your tests are negative. You go home. You don't have novel coronavirus. And the public needs to understand that.

NEIGHMOND: CDC officials say accurate information is best found on their website, www.cdc.gov.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.