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Infected cruise ship passengers are getting care at Nebraska medical center

Officials help passengers off a plane to waiting vehicles at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Neb., on Monday, Feb 17, 2020. American citizens who were on a cruise ship off Japan's coast who were at high risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus were taken to the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus after landing.

Z LONG/OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

By LISA M. KRIEGER | Palo Alto Daily News, Calif. | Published: February 18, 2020

PALO ALTO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — The American passengers diagnosed with coronavirus infection who were evacuated from a Japanese cruise ship are getting specialized care at a Nebraska hospital and are not part of the large quarantine at Fairfield’s Travis Air Force Base, military officials said Monday.

Those 13 individuals — among the 328 U.S. passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama, Japan – were flown to the 20-bed National Quarantine Unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. So far, they are showing only mild symptoms of the disease. One sicker person is getting a higher level of care at the hospital’s Biocontainment Unit, which cared for Ebola patients in 2014.

“These are my fellow Americans and they deserved to be able to come home,” said Santa Cruz native and ship passenger Sarah Arana, who was on the same flight and is healthy. People known to be infected sat in a separate part of the plane, she added.

Arana and about 170 other uninfected passengers are being held at Travis Air Force Base, where they are being monitored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 14 days.

“None of the passengers currently on the installation have tested positive for (coronavirus) or are symptomatic,” Travis officials said in a statement Monday. “If any passenger displays symptoms, they will be transported to an off-base hospital for containment and specialized care.”

Travis is home to two other groups of quarantined evacuees, who arrived from China on Feb. 5 and Feb. 7.

The outbreak continues to be focused mostly in China, with more than 70,600 cases and 1,772 deaths. While 25 other countries report cases, the clusters are small and isolated.

“The real issue is whether we are seeing efficient community transmission outside of China and at the present time we are not observing that,” Mike Ryan, head of World Health Organization’s emergencies program, said at a news conference in Geneva.

Also on Monday, Apple released a statement warning that the outbreak will hurt revenue. Supply is down, because its iPhone manufacturing sites are ramping up more slowly than anticipated. Demand is down, too, because many Chinese retail stores are closed.

Resting at a Travis Air Force Base hotel after an hours-long wait on a bus, then transcontinental flight, passenger Arana commended U.S. health officials.

“We were surrounded by experts in the field who took every precaution imaginable,” she recalled.

Upon landing, they were greeted by crowds and “Welcome home!” signs, she said. It was 2 a.m. and pitch dark, but “I’ll never forget it….I could feel it deep in my bones.”

Rooms at Travis Air Force Base are “very nice,” she said. “They have marked off the area around us with police tape. I can go outside, just not beyond the tape. It’s almost like living in a murder mystery. I can peer at my neighbors through the windows, but we can’t go near each other.”

“What an amazing journey,” said Arana. “I have no idea where they will send me from here and I’m told we don’t get a choice. But it doesn’t even matter. I am back home.”

While confined to her cabin aboard the ship, Arana listened to music by singer-songwriter Cat Power, drank hot tea and did art projects, she wrote. On Valentine’s Day, the cabin crew delivered roses, chocolate and Vitamin C.

When it was time to evacuate the ship, “American doctors knocked on my door to check on me. They were all in white hazmat suits. They could not touch me or come near me,” she wrote. “When I heard their voices though, the sound of those familiar American voices, it was immediately comforting.”

U.S. health officials considered it unsafe to leave Americans on the ship, docked in Yokohama, Japan, and flew them on two cargo planes to the United States on Sunday night to Fairfield and Joint Base San Antonio in Texas. Australia, Italy, Hong Kong and Canada were planning similar evacuations.

The cruise suffered an outbreak after the virus was diagnosed in a man who had disembarked days earlier in Hong Kong.

After consultations with health experts, the U.S. CDC decided to let the infected evacuees, who had not yet shown symptoms, board the cargo jets to Travis Air Force Base and Joint Base San Antonio in Texas.

Because the passengers were all asymptomatic, health authorities deemed them “fit to fly,” the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement Monday.

The flight carrying the Americans landed at Travis around 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, according to the Travis spokesman.

Their arrival nearly doubles the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease, named COVID-19, in the U.S. There are now 29 cases, up from 15.

While this disease has been more infectious than the SARS outbreak in 2003, it has been far less lethal. Experts estimate a fatality rate between one and two percent for COVID-19, with the majority of the fatalities being in people with other medical conditions.

The infected Americans arrived at a remote and isolated aircraft parking area at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield and did not enter the terminal. They boarded a bus and were driven straight to the National Quarantine Unit. They will be closely monitored and tested for the virus before leaving the Quarantine Unit.

“We were there for Ebola, we were there for the rescued Americans now being monitored at Camp Ashland and we’re going to be there for these American citizens as well,” said Dr. Jeffrey P. Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska at Omaha.

©2020 the Palo Alto Daily News (Menlo Park, Calif.)
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