As the worldwide death toll from Wuhan coronavirus approaches 500 people, airport and local officials in the United States are on the front lines in trying to stop the virus’s spread.
The problem: Some say they’ve barely received any guidance or logistical help in implementing new travel and quarantine rules ordered by the federal government.
“Everyone has been trying to nail down clarifications on the travel ban,” an official at a major West Coast airport told CNN.
“There were questions along the line like ‘How is this going to work? What are going to be the procedures?’ and ‘What are the details on a quarantine?’”
The new federal rules, which went into effect Sunday, include:
– Temporarily banning any foreign national who has visited China in the past 14 days from entering the US
– Forcing US citizens who have recently traveled to Hubei province – the epicenter of the outbreak – to be quarantined for up to 14 days after their return to the US
– Requiring US citizens returning from other parts of mainland China to undergo health screenings at selected ports of entry. These Americans could also undergo up to 14 days of self-monitored quarantine.
A government official on the East Coast told CNN after the Trump administration’s coronavirus travel restrictions came down, local and state officials were left scrambling to figure out how and where to quarantine people who were asymptomatic, but may have been exposed to the virus.
The official said that planes were arriving “within hours” with no federal protocols in place, other than that people with symptoms would be treated locally by state and local health agencies, while quarantine locations were still to be determined.
“The federal government basically said, we’re going to bring these planes in, and when they land, you guys figure it out,” the government official said.
Planes carrying US citizens who have recently been in China must land at one of 11 designated airports: John F. Kennedy in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Honolulu, Dallas, Detroit, Newark and Washington’s Dulles.
The West Coast official’s airport is one of the 11 airports designated for coronavirus screenings and possible quarantine.
But the official worried the airport was not prepared for large numbers of potentially sick people. Previous training scenarios typically involved preparations for just a small number of sick people, the source said.
“We have identified a couple of spaces in the airport facility that we can block off and contain people,” the official said.
While airports scramble, the global death toll soars.
At least 490 people have died from Wuhan coronavirus, mostly in China. The country has more than 23,000 confirmed cases of the virus, which was a mystery illness just two months ago.
In the US, at least 11 people have been diagnosed with Wuhan coronavirus. Two of them contracted the virus from their spouses, who had recently traveled to the Wuhan area.
Officials in British Columbia, Canada, on Tuesday announced another case of the virus, the fifth in the country.
WHO director warns against travel restrictions
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said travel bans might do more harm than good.
“We reiterate our call to all countries not to impose restrictions that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade. Such restrictions can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.” Ghebreyesus said in a Tuesday briefing to the UN’s executive board in Geneva.
“Where such measures have been implemented, we urge that they are short in duration, proportionate to the public health risks, and are reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves.”
At the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, no passengers have shown symptoms of coronavirus or have needed to be quarantined, spokeswoman Alnissa Ruiz-Craig said.
Newark Liberty International Airport also hasn’t quarantined anyone over concerns about coronavirus, the New Jersey Department of Health said. Neither has Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, spokesman Perry Cooper said.
Where 195 Americans are quarantined
In Southern California, 195 Americans who took an evacuation flight out of Wuhan last Wednesday are quarantined at March Air Reserve Base.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered a federal 14-day quarantine for those evacuees – the first such order in more than 50 years.
Evacuee Jarred Evans said the group is in good spirits.
“Everyone is doing pretty fine,” Evans told CNN Monday. “People understand that the quarantine is necessary.”
But by Tuesday, a quarantined child at the base had developed a fever and was headed to Riverside University Health System Medical Center for testing, Riverside County said in a statement.
The child was among the Americans who evacuated from Wuhan last week.
California is expecting two more flights from Wuhan carrying hundreds of American evacuees.
Both flights are expected to depart Tuesday. The new evacuees will head to two California military bases: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, and Travis Air Force Base between San Francisco and Sacramento.
‘We never like a rushed job’
In other parts of the country, officials are scrambling to accommodate the new travel and quarantine rules.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city is adding health screenings and mobilizing first responders. But “there’s a need for clear operational guidance,” and federal authorities “need all to get on the same page.”
“Local law enforcement, local support should not be on the front lines without a clear federal mandate on these nuanced questions that come from the mandate to quarantine people who are coming from the particular province,” Lightfoot said.
“And also, for people who are supposed to self-quarantine, what does that mean?”
Hawaii is still looking for places to house quarantined people, if necessary. But Lt. Gov. Josh Green said military bases would like be the preferred choice.
“We will be prepared. We are spending 24/7 on this to make sure that whatever steps necessary be taken to keep our people safe,” Green told CNN affiliate KITV.
“But we never like a rushed job, and that’s kind of what the federal government did to us.”
Canadian citizen turned away at the US border
The new travel ban involving those recently in China doesn’t just apply at airports.
A Canadian citizen trying to enter the US was turned back at the northern border, acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said Monday.
“We’re just beginning, today, to see results of implementation,” Cuccinelli said.
As for travel by water, the Coast Guard held a ship offshore in Washington state’s Puget Sound until it passed a 14-day waiting period and no passenger showed symptoms.
The federal government isn’t just trying to seal US borders from incoming coronavirus cases. It’s also urging Americans to not go to China.
The State Department issued a level 4 travel advisory warning residents not to travel to China. It said most commercial air carriers have already reduced or suspended flights to and from the country.
Trapped in an apartment thousands of miles away
San Diego resident Kenneth Burnett’s wife, Yanjun Wei, 3-year-old son Rowan, and 1-year-old daughter Mia have been trapped in Wuhan, China, due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Burnett was supposed to join his family to celebrate the Chinese New Year, but the metropolis was shut down.
Wei told her husband she and their children have been holed up in a high-rise apartment.
“It’s terrifying,” Burnett said. “It is very dramatic to shut down (an area) of 50 million people. You think to yourself, if that can happen what else can happen?”
Burnett and Wei had been trying to get in contact with the State Department and the US Embassy in China for help. Now, Burnett said his wife and children are tentatively booked on the next evacuation flight out.
“We think my wife and kids will get seats,” he said, “but they basically they won’t guarantee anything.”
CNN’s Laura Ly, Dave Alsup, Nada Bashir, Lucy Kafanov, Stella Chan, Chuck Johnston, Mirna Alsharif and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.