Federal and local health officials expect a plane carrying Americans escaping the epicenter of a global coronavirus epidemic in China to land in Omaha as early as Friday.
About 70 people in all, ranging in age from infants to people over 70, will be transported from Eppley Airfield to the Nebraska National Guard's training site at Camp Ashland for a 14-day quarantine period.
Dr. Eric Kasowski, chief of the Population Health Workforce at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a press conference on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus Thursday none of the patients — all Americans — are showing symptoms of coronavirus.
"Because these people lived in Wuhan, the epicenter of this outbreak where there was escalating, communitywide spread of the novel coronavirus, they are considered an increased risk for exposure," Kasowski said. "That doesn't necessarily mean they will get sick."
Health officials, including those from UNMC and Nebraska Medicine, expect the people arriving by a chartered civilian aircraft to be healthy and asymptomatic upon arrival, Kasowski added.
Each has been screened multiple times, including before takeoff and during their flight, and will be screened upon arrival.
"The purpose of the quarantine is to identify any onset of illness among this group right away should it develop," Kasowski said.
If anyone begins to show symptoms of the coronavirus, they will be taken by a specialized ambulance to either the 20-bed national quarantine unit or the Biocontainment Patient Care Unit at UNMC, said Shelly Schwedhelm, UNMC's executive director of emergency management and preparedness.
The biocontainment unit on UNMC's campus is the same facility that successfully cared for several patients during an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014-15.
Unlike the Ebola virus, which was spread by coming into direct contact with bodily fluids, the coronavirus, a respiratory virus, is believed to spread from person to person by respiratory droplets emitted through coughing or sneezing.
In that way, the coronavirus is similar to SARS or MERS, said Dr. James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at UNMC, adding the biocontainment team at the medical center has practiced responding to respiratory viruses.
"These are circumstances that our team has been training for for years," Lawler said. "We've trained not only to manage hemorrhagic fever viruses like Ebola, but we've also trained extensively to manage respiratory virus infections as well.
"We feel our team is very well prepared to manage patients if we should need to admit any," Lawler said.
Once those in quarantine are outside the 14-day incubation period for the virus, they do not represent a significant risk for transmitting it to others, he added.
The clock on the quarantine period started when the planes left China.
Once they arrive at Camp Ashland, National Guard Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac said the patients should find their accommodations like "a modest hotel" undamaged in the 2019 flooding at the regional training center situated along the Platte River.
Families will be able to stay in adjoining rooms in the 85-bed facility built in the 1990s, each of which has a television. Patients will also be able to access exercise equipment and play areas for children.
"The Wi-Fi has been dialed way up," said Dana Hall, a regional administrator with the U.S. Public Health Service based out of Overland Park, Kansas.
Social workers will be on site helping the patients reintegrate to the U.S. and to meet religious and other needs of those while they are in quarantine, Hall said.
Anyone who comes into close proximity — within 6 feet of someone who has been exposed to the virus — or prolonged exposure to the 70 or so people federal and local health officials will monitor at Camp Ashland will be required to follow strict procedures.
Those who come into contact with a patient will be required to wear masks, gloves and face shields. Anyone who examines a patient will wear a respirator and full-disposable gown.
On Wednesday, two planes carrying 350 Americans from Wuhan arrived at Travis Air Force Base northeast of San Francisco, while another plane is destined for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
While the coronavirus has spread from China to 28 countries, there are just 12 confirmed cases in the U.S.
Kasowski said while the epidemic has demonstrated the virus can spread quickly between people, and has caused the deaths of 564 people in China so far, the CDC believes aggressive action will prevent further spread here.
"We're in a unique situation right now with this virus because we recognized it very early in the epidemic," he said, "and we still think the quarantine action will be useful."
UNMC Chancellor Jeff Gold said researchers in Omaha are working on an antiviral therapy that could treat the symptoms of the coronavirus as it prepares to serve the needs of another infectious disease outbreak.
"Days like this make me incredibly proud to be a Nebraskan," he said.
And Gov. Pete Ricketts said Nebraskans were ready to demonstrate the same grit and willingness to serve these U.S. citizens as they showed to each other during the 2019 flooding, the costliest natural disaster in the state's history.
"Of anybody in the world, we have the expertise and facilities to be able to handle this," he said. "We have a duty to our fellow Americans to be able to help these rescued folks."
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