ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An airplane evacuating as many as 240 Americans from a Chinese city at the center of a virus outbreak has landed in the U.S.
The U.S. government chartered the plane to fly out diplomats from the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan, where the latest coronavirus outbreak started, and other U.S. citizens. The plane is making a refueling stop in Alaska, where it landed Tuesday night, before flying on to southern California.
But first, the travelers were to be re-screened in Anchorage for the virus, and hospitals were prepared to treat or quarantine people who may be infected. Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, and in more severe cases shortness of breath or pneumonia.
The passengers are being isolated in the airport’s international terminal, which lies mostly dormant in the winter months. The terminal is not connected to the larger and heavily used domestic flights terminal, and each has separate ventilation systems, said Jim Szczesniak, manager of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
“In the wintertime, we have the ability and the luxury of not having any passenger traffic over there, so it’s a perfect area for us to handle this kind of flight,” he said.
The lobby in the international terminal was nearly empty Tuesday afternoon, and an airport employee was seen jogging through the facility, which has closed counters for companies like Korean Air, China Airlines and Asiana Airlines. There are two businesses operating at either end of the ticket counters, a 4×4 rental agency and a satellite office of the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles.
Wuhan is the epicenter of a new virus that has sickened thousands and killed more than 100, and a federal official said the plane left the city before dawn Wednesday, China time. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
The white cargo plane with red and gold stripes arrived in Anchorage at the mostly desolate North Terminal just after 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, local time. The jetway was extended from the end of the terminal, but it also had no windows. Passengers were not visible. Media were held in a concourse between the airport’s two terminals, about 100 yards (91.4 meters) from the plane. Airport workers were buzzing around the plane after it landed.
Alaska health officials said a news conference would be held later.
The plane is scheduled to land at March Air Reserve Base in California’s Riverside County, instead of the original plan to land at Ontario International Airport in neighboring San Bernardino County.
Curt Hagman, an Ontario airport commissioner, said the Centers for Disease Control announced the diversion.
“We were prepared but the State Department decided to switch the flight” to the airbase, Hagman said.
Officials at the Ontario airport 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of Los Angeles had been readying facilities to receive and screen the repatriates and temporarily house them for up to two weeks — if the CDC determined that is necessary, said David Wert, spokesman for the county of San Bernardino.
Ontario International Airport was designated about a decade ago by the U.S. government to receive repatriated Americans in case of an emergency overseas, but it would have been the first time the facility was used for the purpose, Wert said.
China has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province to prevent people from leaving and spreading the virus further. In addition to the United States, countries including Japan and South Korea have also planned evacuations.