Coronavirus: CDC Orders First Federal Quarantine of U.S. Citizens Since 1960s

U.S. health officials said Friday they would quarantine 195 U.S. citizens who were evacuated from Wuhan, China, amid an outbreak of a novel coronavirus — the first time in 50 years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken such action.

The order will be effective for 14 days from the date of evacuation.

The passengers arrived at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California Wednesday after being flown from Wuhan, with a refueling stop in Anchorage. The passengers had been monitored for symptoms — including cough and fever — before, during, and after the flight.

U.S. officials said that all passengers had volunteered to stay at the base in isolation for a few days while they could be assessed, but one person tried to leave the base that night and was placed under a 14-day quarantine by local authorities.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters health officials were prepared for the possibility that the outbreak of the coronavirus could become a pandemic — the worldwide spread of a disease. “We are preparing as if this is the next pandemic,” she said, stressing that the agency hoped it would not become one.

“If we take strong measures now, we may be able to blunt the impact of the virus on the United States,” Messonnier said.

She added: “Please do not let fear or panic guide your actions.”

This is the first time a federal agency has issued such a quarantine since the 1960s, when one was issued over a smallpox evaluation. The CDC clarified that a quarantine —- cordoning of people who are not yet sick but could potentially become sick -— is different from isolation orders for patients who have already been identified as being sick with a concerning infectious disease, which is more common.

So far, none of the 195 evacuated citizens have been found to be infected with 2019-nCoV. And for now, the immediate risk to the American public in general remains low, Dr. Messonnier said in the press conference today.

Jared Evans, a professional football player in China who is one of the evacuees, told The Associated Press that the passengers are continuing to be cautious while on base. Evans said he personally is wearing a mask and gloves and that, generally, people head back to their rooms after dinner.

At this time, Messonier said the CDC is not recommending that the general public wear masks.

The CDC would rather be remembered for overreacting rather than under-reacting, Dr. Messonnier told reporters at the press conference today.

She cautioned Americans from unnecessarily panicking over the outbreak — such as buying up surgical face masks, which are not completely effective at preventing viral respiratory infections, to protect against a virus that is not currently circulating in the US. Face masks are not recommended during normal cold and flu season, and they’re not recommended now, Dr. Messonnier said.

She also warned citizens not to discriminate against any of their fellow Americans of Asian descent.

Dr. Messonnier reiterated that the best way for Americans to protect their health and the health of their communities is to continue practicing good hygiene practices during this cold and flu season. That is, get a flu shot, wash your hands with soap and water frequently, don’t touch your face with unwashed hands, cough and sneeze into your elbow, and stay home if you feel ill.

The virus, known provisionally as 2019-nCoV, has caused nearly 9,700 confirmed infections and killed 213 people in China. About 100 additional infections have been reported in 18 other countries, and no deaths. The large majority of cases outside China came from people who picked up the virus in China and then traveled to the other countries.

CDC officials framed the quarantine decision as the best way to preclude the potential spread of the virus to the people’s families and communities. They said that monitoring the people for 14 days also meant that should any of them become sick, they can be quickly identified.

Quarantining people involves restricting the movements of people who may have been exposed to a pathogen but are not yet sick; it is different than isolation, which refers to containing people who are sick. The last time a federal quarantine order was issued for potential cases was in the 1960s for smallpox evaluation, CDC officials said.

The CDC also confirmed Friday that China had agreed to allow some of its experts into the country “to support” the Chinese response and help study the transmission of the virus and the range of severity seen with infections, a spokesperson said. The World Health Organization is sending another mission to China to collaborate on the response and investigation.

The repatriated passengers had been evacuated from Wuhan, the central Chinese city of 11 million people where cases of the virus were first documented last month and where the outbreak is centered. U.S. officials arranged the flight as the virus spread and China imposed lockdowns on Wuhan and other cities, shutting down travel to and from the areas and essentially quarantining tens of millions of people.

One person with a fever was not allowed to board the flight in Wuhan, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Messonnier called the quarantine “an unprecedented action.” But, she said, “we are facing an unprecedented public health threat.”

CDC officials acknowledged that a quarantine came with downsides, including the potential for fear and for the stigmatization of people under quarantine. “We’re taking every measure to make sure people are treated with dignity and respect,” said Dr. Martin Cetron, CDC’s director of global migration and quarantine.

There have been six confirmed U.S. cases of the coronavirus infection. Five were travel-related. The sixth, announced Thursday, marked the first U.S. case of human-to-human transmission; one of the travel-related cases, a woman in Illinois, transmitted the virus to her husband before she was isolated.

U.S. health officials have said since the outbreak started that they expected travel-related cases and for some of those patients to pass the virus on to their close contacts. If they can restrict the virus to cases of limited spread among contacts and prevent the virus from circulating more broadly, it is much easier to snuff out the virus.

On Thursday, the State Department increased its travel warning to Americans, urging them to avoid travel to China. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the WHO’s declaration of the outbreak as a global health emergency as part of the rationale for the warning. But WHO officials have stressed the declaration was being made to encourage countries not to impose travel and trade restrictions on China.