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Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, CDC prepare to receive quarantined China evacuees

Air Station Miramar (Nehrams2020/WikiCommons)

Two facilities at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar have been readied to house hundreds of Americans returning from China due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Marine Corps said Tuesday.

Dr. Christopher Braden, a deputy director with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control deployed to handle repatriation flights from China to California, said the arrival is imminent.

“We’re expecting our first plane of passengers probably later on tonight or tomorrow,” Braden told the Union-Tribune Tuesday.

The facilities — the Consolidated Bachelor Quarters and the Inns of the Corps at Miramar — will house between 300-350 Americans for two weeks, according to government officials. Many of those to be quarantined are families with children.

All passengers, Braden noted, were screened for symptoms of the virus before getting on the plane in China and will undergo the same process when they land at Miramar.

“If there is anybody who is ill or who has fever, they are not allowed on the plane,” Braden said. “Once they arrive, another screening is the first thing that we will do on this end and, if there are any people who have symptoms and/or fever, consistent with coronavirus infection, they are transported to a medical facility for a full medical evaluation and isolation.”

The director, who has worked for the CDC for more than 26 years, said that local hospitals have been working out who would receive any patients suspected of coronavirus infection in the event that symptoms surface during screenings, which are to take place at least twice per day.

“It could be any of the major medical systems that take a particular case,” said Braden, who coordinated preparations for the 195 people currently housed under federal quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County.

Marine Capt. Matthew Gregory, a spokesman for MCAS Miramar, said base operations will not be affected by the quarantine.

“The DOD is taking a supporting role,” Gregory said when reached by phone. “Base operations are not going to be impacted. Life on Miramar is going to continue as it has been.”

During the quarantine, news media will not be allowed on base, Gregory said, nor are any military personnel expected to come into contact with those subject to quarantine.

Miramar is one of two California bases and four facilities nationwide tapped by the Pentagon to house quarantined Americans. The others are the Travis Air Force Base near Vacaville, Fort Carson in Colorado and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

The quarantine is part of a wide-ranging U.S. government response to the outbreak of a new coronavirus strain first detected in Wuhan, China, and has spread to several countries — including the United States.

For the most part, it’s a relatively relaxed atmosphere inside the quarantine. Braden said that while those under quarantine are advised that they reduce risk of possible transmission by staying at least six feet away from others, no one is required to do so, nor is anyone required to wear a medical mask or other personal protective equipment.

Monitoring is frequent enough, the director said, that anyone with symptoms or a fever would be removed from the quarantine population immediately and moved to a medical facility.

While there is speculation that the specific strain of coronavirus causing the current global outbreak can be transmitted before symptoms such as a cough and fever appear, Braden said there is little concern that such transmission is likely.

Whether or not the virus can be transmitted before symptoms appear, he said, the fact remains that the only way this particular microbe moves from one person to another is by having water droplets — ejected when a person coughs or sneezes — come into direct and prolonged contact with membranes in the eyes, nose or throat.

“Myself, going into quarantine, and certainly I did this at March (Air Reserve Base), I maintain some distance from people, but I’ve spent hours with those populations and I don’t wear personal protective equipment,” Braden said, adding that such equipment would be appropriate if more direct contact, such as a medical exam, were being conducted.

As to how those already living under quarantine are holding up, Braden said that the vast majority seem happy to be back on American soil and generally thankful that they have a protected place to stay that spares them from the possible social awkwardness of having to go straight home to their families.

“It seems to relieve a little bit of the stigma concern that they felt they would be under otherwise,” Braden said.

MCAS Miramar held two information sessions Tuesday for roughly 50 service members and their families living on the base with Braden and the base commanding officer, Col. Charles Dockery.

According to Gregory, the sessions were organized to address concerns among base personnel because of the “unprecedented” nature of the quarantine. Most attendees expressed worries about possible spread of the disease and children facing stigma at school. Parents were urged to work with school officials and the base’s school liaison officer.

Braden said he’s trying to help those he speaks with understand that the quarantine process is the most effective way to keep the virus from spreading like it is overseas. Overall, he said, it looks like the novel virus that is currently making headlines has a much lower mortality rate than other strains that caused the SARS and MERS outbreaks.

“It may be that it is not as serious and we may end up getting criticized for overreaction,” Braden said. “But I’d rather overreact than underreact in this kind of situation.”


© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune