WASHINGTON — U.S. health officials on Friday imposed a federal quarantine for 195 evacuees who arrived from Wuhan this week at a military base in California amid worries about the coronavirus outbreak in China.
U.S. officials said the quarantine authority, rarely used in the United States, would restrict the travelers’ movements for 14 days after they left Wuhan because officials want to continue monitoring them for signs of illness and symptoms of the virus that has sickened nearly 10,000 people and killed more than 200 in China.
Most cases are in China, but the outbreak has spread to more than a dozen countries, including the United States, which has six confirmed cases. The World Health Organization declared a global emergency Thursday.
Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is overseeing the U.S. coronavirus response, said officials imposed the quarantine because new cases in China have surged dramatically over the past week. She cited reports that the virus spreads from person to person and sometimes even before the infected person shows symptoms. The virus is spread through respiratory droplets, such as coughing and sneezing.
“If we take strong measures now, we may be able to blunt the impact of the virus on the United States,” she said in a briefing with reporters Friday. “We are facing an unprecedented public health threat.”
She added, “We are preparing as if this were the next pandemic, but we hope that will not be the case.”
Incoming commercial flights from China have not been put under quarantine, and Messonnier said that the order was because of emerging evidence of the magnitude and scope of the epidemic in China and the fact that the passengers were coming directly from the epicenter of the outbreak. She said that the agency is still determining what measures to take for travelers who will be evacuated by the State Department from Wuhan, which will begin on Feb. 3.
Laboratory testing of the passengers being held at the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, Calif., is not yet complete, but Messonnier emphasized that even a negative result would not rule out the possibility that they would soon get sick.
“Even if the initial screening test comes back negative from the CDC laboratory, it does not guarantee they will not get sick,” Messonnier said. “Please remember, we do not believe a negative result on this test means someone is out of danger.”
For example, a person might be asymptomatically incubating the virus and it may not be detected.
States also have the authority to impose quarantines, but the federal authority has not been used in more than 50 years. The last such use was in the 1960s because of suspected smallpox, officials said. Federal quarantine is used to restrict movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease and prevent them from spreading to another state or outside the country.
Those under quarantine will be required to remain on the Air Force base. There is no threat to local residents. The travelers will receive regular temperature checks and medical care at the first onset of symptoms.
She also warned against fear and racism. “Do not assume that everyone who is of Asian descent that they have this coronavirus,” she said. “There are 4 million Chinese Americans in this country.”