Nearly 200 Americans evacuated from China because of the new virus were ordered quarantined Friday at a Southern California military base, the first time in half a century the government has taken such a step.
The 195 evacuees were flown on a charter flight earlier this week from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak. They will spend two weeks at the base, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced.
The CDC said it was the first federal quarantine since the 1960s, when one was issued over concern about potential spread of smallpox.
“We understand this action may seem drastic. We would rather be remembered for overreacting than underreacting,” said the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier.
The move was supported by Riverside County.
“Riverside County health officials fully support the quarantine order implemented today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” a statement from the county read. “Riverside County officials will continue to work collaboratively with local, state and federal representatives to protect the health of the returned passengers, residents of March Air Reserve Base and all community members of Riverside County.”
The evacuees are U.S. government employees, their families and other Americans who were living in Wuhan. Initially, health officials asked them to stay at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California, for up to three days of monitoring and testing.
As of Friday, none of the Americans housed at the base had shown signs of illness, according to Jose Arballo Jr., a spokesman for the Riverside County’s public health agency.
Test results from the passengers are still coming in, Messonnier said. All have been negative so far. Health officials believe it can take up to two weeks for someone who is infected to get sick.
Messonnier said it’s still not clear how dangerous the virus is. She said government officials were motivated to issue the quarantine order after watching dramatic increases in the number of illnesses and deaths reported in China.
The new virus is a cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past. Since December, it has sickened thousands, mostly in China, and killed more than 200.
In the meantime, the State Department was planning more flights for Americans who want to leave Wuhan. All passengers will be screened before departing, an agency official said. The CDC is working to determine how those travelers will be processed, Messonnier said.
The U.S. has advised against all travel to China and on Thursday confirmed the country’s first case of person-to-person spread of the virus. The husband of a Chicago woman who got sick after she returned from a trip to Wuhan became the sixth patient in the U.S., and the only one who did not travel to China.
At the military base about 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, the evacuees are staying in hotel-style housing and have spent time walking and exercising, some wearing masks, Arballo said.
One person tried to leave the base Wednesday night and was quarantined by the county. The CDC’s Dr. Martin Cetron on Friday said that incident did not drive the decision for the federal quarantine.
There are potential downsides to issuing such an order, Cetron acknowledged.
“Clearly there are consequences if it is not done properly, if it induces fear and stigma,” he said.
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University expert on public health law, said putting a large number of people under quarantine “is virtually unprecedented in modern American history.”
“But I think it’s justified,” he said, noting the evacuees had been in a hot zone for a long time.
A better approach, though, might have been asking the evacuees to agree to be isolated in the U.S. as a condition for getting on the charter flight, he said.
Matthew L. McCoy, a 55-year-old theme park designer who lives in China, said he was relieved when told he was under a 14-day federal quarantine order.
“All of us really want to stay here and make sure we’re all medically clear and the public safe,” he said Friday by telephone. “Everybody was very relieved. We wanted to make sure all the tests were done first.”
McCoy, who got stuck in Wuhan after traveling there for business, said he’s been able to keep up with his work in his room on the base and has hooked his computer up to the television screen. Children are outside playing, and everyone is trying to make the experience as easy as possible for each other, he said.
Once the quarantine ends, he plans to head to Atlanta to see family, but his home is in Shanghai. He said his fiancée and her parents are still in China, in an area far from the center of the outbreak.
She urged him to take the flight so he could continue to get his work done, he said. Others in the group of 195 had to leave behind family members because they were not U.S. citizens, he said.
One of the evacuees said he had been hoping to get out over the weekend but understands the reason for the quarantine order.
“When you come from the epicenter of Wuhan, and things are getting worse and not better, it’s the best thing to do,” Jarred Evans said in a phone interview.
Evans moved to Wuhan several years ago to play in a Chinese football league. The New York City native played at the University of Cincinnati in 2014-15.
After the Chinese government shut down the city of 11 million people, Evans compared its deserted atmosphere to an Old West ghost town.
“Imagine New York City being shut down,” he said in an earlier interview. “I was completely scared at first, because I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.”