A flight carrying 201 Americans fleeing the deadly coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan landed in California on Wednesday after an emotional stopover in Alaska as the death toll in China jumped to 132.
Also Wednesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, announced that he would reconvene the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Thursday to advise him on whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC. Last week the committee found that it was too soon to make such a declaration.
The U.S. flight arrived at the March Air Reserve Base, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, at about 8 a.m. local time. The flight departed Anchorage early Wednesday after refueling and after screenings were completed on the 201 passengers from Wuhan – the epicenter of the virus outbreak.
[A video submitted to the popular Fcebook page Air Force amn/nco/snco shows the plane at the airbase alongside awaiting buses to transport the evacuees.]
All passengers had already been through two screenings in China and were monitored during the flight, said Alaska Health Department spokesman Clinton Bennett.
In Anchorage, all passengers were screened twice more and approved to continue on to California by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California, they were undergoing additional health screenings.
Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said the passengers were excited to be back on American soil.
“For many of us directly involved, this has been a moving and uplifting experience,” Zink said. “The whole plane erupted in cheers when the crew said, ‘Welcome home to the United States.'”
Health officials in California working with the CDC were rescreening the passengers, who will be “temporarily housed for a period of time,” Bennett said. He did not say how long the quarantine would last.
The flight was chartered by the State Department to return a few dozen Wuhan consulate workers to the U.S. Most of the passengers are Americans living in Wuhan who paid their way to get out.
The State Department said it was working with Chinese officials to evacuate other Americans in and around Wuhan who want to leave.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Yang Jiechi, foreign affairs director for China’s Communist Party. Pompeo expressed condolences for the loss of life and thanked Yang his help in the evacuation.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million in the central China province of Hubei, is one of more than a dozen under tight lockdown as the government struggles to contain the virus. The number of confirmed infections across China rose to almost 6,000 on Wednesday. Scores of cases have been confirmed in more than a dozen other nations, including five cases in the U.S.
Michael Ryan, who heads the WHO health emergencies program, said he had just visited China and was amazed at China’s effort to combat the outbreak.
“The challenge is great but the response has been massive,” he said at a news conference in Geneva. “I am very impressed with the level of engagement of the Chinese government at all levels.”
Ryan said that about 20% of the confirmed cases have involved serious illness and that about 2% resulted in death. He said those are high percentages and that some of the greatest medical minds in the world have been brought together to halt the outbreak.
The emergency committee meeting Thursday will make a recommendation on whether the PHEIC should be declared. Tedros, who makes the final decision, said after rejecting the idea last week that WHO is “following the outbreak every minute of every day” and could still decide to a make the declaration.
Such declarations can result in more resources made available to combat outbreaks but also can spur restrictions on trade and travel.
Coronaviruses get their name from their appearance under a microscope – they look something like a crown, a sphere with spikes jutting out. A global scientific hunt for a vaccine is underway – a Hong Kong scientist says researchers there have developed one but warned that testing could take “a long time.”
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