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Flights carrying 350 coronavirus evacuees from Wuhan, China, arrive at Travis AFB in California

C-17 Globemaster III at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. (Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr)

Two jetliners carrying 350 American evacuees from the epicenter of China’s deadly coronavirus outbreak landed early Wednesday morning at Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield.

The first of two flights aboard privately contracted Boeing 747-400s touched down at 3:59 a.m. at the Northern California military installation after its 11½-hour, 6,500-mile flight. The second landed 25 minutes later.

U.S. health officials said Tuesday as many as 250 people from the airlift would be quarantined there for the next two weeks — though none of the evacuees are showing symptoms of the virus, which has been linked to nearly 500 deaths.

The balance of passengers is expected to depart for another quarantine site near San Diego after one of the planes refuels, according to military officials. The flights, operated by Kalitta Air, left Wuhan around 5 p.m. Pacific time and flew direct to the Solano County base 30 miles southwest of Sacramento, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.

The data service indicated the flights, Kalitta 373 and 375, filed flight plans destined for March Air Reserve Base, where the U.S. government evacuated 195 employees from China’s coronavirus zone last week, before diverting 15 minutes before landing.

Aerial footage from KGO-TV, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco, showed the planes landing on Runway 21L and taxiing across the tarmac away from the passenger terminal to an area framed by C-5 Galaxy transporters and other military aircraft.

Once parked, the first wave of passengers, some holding luggage, were escorted one by one and in small groups out of the plane. Officials walked them beneath the jumbo jet, emblazoned with the name of cargo carrier Kalitta Air, and into the adjacent Hangar 16.

Between deplaning passengers, KGO video showed personnel in white protective suits, some wearing respirators, unloading luggage from the cabins using the air stairs. Travelers in the second plane, unmarked without a tail number and painted a solid white, waited for more than 40 minutes before officials began deplaning them.

After assembling in Hangar 16, the passengers were expected to be taken by buses to quarantine accommodations at the Westwind Inn, Travis’ on-base hotel.

The flight to San Diego took off at 8:14 a.m. and was arrived at Joe Foss Field at 9:24 a.m.

Late Tuesday, officials from U.S. Northern Command, which directs military operations within the United States, issued a statement that officials were preparing to receive the plane that took off 32 minutes apart from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport.

“The initial flights have departed China for Travis Air Force Base with approximately 350 passengers on board. One of the aircraft will refuel at Travis and continue on to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station,” officials based in Colorado said in a statement posted to Twitter. “As previously announced, these individuals will be subject to a CDC managed 14-day quarantine. DOD will work closely with our interagency partners and continue to provide support to the situation as requested.”

Travis and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego, along with March, are among five U.S. sites to take coronavirus evacuees. The Pentagon has said military personnel will not be in contact with those quarantined. Rather, the staff of the Department of Health and Human Services and their contractors will be charged with providing for their needs.

Fairfield’s Travis AFB is home to the David Grant USAF Medical Center, the Air Force’s largest hospital in the contiguous United States, though Pentagon officials previously said “should routine monitoring of the evacuees identify ill individuals, HHS has procedures in place to transport them to a local civilian hospital.”

Travis officials, who did not respond to a request for comment told base personnel in a Facebook post evacuees would be housed at Westwind Inn, with a safety cordon established away from on-base residences.

“Travis airmen and personnel will not be directly in contact with the evacuees and evacuees will not have access to any base location other than their assigned housing,” Travis officials said Saturday.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services told military installations including Travis to provide housing facilities through Feb. 29.

Officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to discuss the arrivals at Travis during a noon news conference.

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, whose district includes Travis Air Force Base, has been in regular contact with federal health officials at the CDC and Health and Human Services regarding the virus and incoming evacuees. Garamendi and other Northern California lawmakers were briefed Monday on the incoming flight, communications director Eric Olsen said Tuesday.

“We can publicly confirm 250 individuals,” Olsen said, adding the Fairfield congressman has “continued confidence” in how federal health officials are handling the virus.

“CDC is taking the lead,” Olsen said. “They have a comprehensive strategy in place and are taking it very seriously.”

More flights expected

More flights are expected in the coming days to evacuate more Americans from Wuhan, which has been sealed off since Jan. 23. The State Department tweeted it “may be staging flights” on Thursday and encouraged Americans with valid passports to contact them.

“Chinese health authorities will be screening travelers at the airport and may deny boarding to anyone who may be of health concern,” the U.S. Embassy in China said. “They may also deny boarding to the passenger’s family members or involuntarily hospitalize anyone of health concern.”

The additional American citizens subject to the nation’s first quarantine in 50 years, however, would likely be housed at Miramar, Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio or the Army’s Fort Collins, Colorado. Additional evacuees may go to the March base in Riverside, too, after a Pentagon official said Tuesday that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had requested assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services for assistance housing up to 1,000 people in quarantine if needed at March.

“We are just preparing on the backend to provide the housing if needed,” said Assistant Defense Secretary Jonathan Rath Hoffman. “Because the hope is that no one has to be quarantined going forward. But we’re prepared to help if needed.”

Death toll approaches 500

Out of the 11 total cases of the new coronavirus in the U.S., six cases are in California, the CDC said Tuesday. The agency said it expects to see more cases of the novel strain — a respiratory illness that causes fever, coughing and shortness of breath — even as state health officials urge that the risk of the virus’ spread to the general public in California remains low.

More than 24,000 people have come down with the new coronavirus worldwide, roughly two-thirds of them in the mainland China province of Hubei where the outbreak originated. Reported deaths in China numbered 490 as of Wednesday — a mortality rate of roughly two of every 100 cases.

More people in China have now died in this epidemic than from the outbreak SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2002. That outbreak killed 349 but had a mortality rate of about 10 percent.


© 2020 The Sacramento Bee