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US evacuees from China expected to get virus screening in Anchorage during refueling stop

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a pilot wearing a protective suit parks a cargo plane at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. Hong Kong's leader announced Tuesday that all rail links to mainland China will be cut starting Friday as fears grow about the spread of a new virus. (Cheng Min/Xinhua via AP)

A chartered jet evacuating Americans from China amid the outbreak of a new and potentially deadly virus is expected to be refueled in Anchorage this week, health officials said Monday.

The approximately 240 passengers on the flight will undergo a coronavirus screening before they leave Wuhan, China, and are expected to get off the plane for a second screening at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said the state’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink.

The airport has had six cargo flights land in Anchorage from Wuhan since the beginning of the month, according to a statement from the airport. All other cargo flights from the city were suspended indefinitely last week.

The coronavirus was first documented in Wuhan in late December, with at least 106 deaths and over 4,500 cases reported since then. In the U.S., there have been five confirmed cases of coronavirus but no deaths.

There are 73 cases under investigation nationwide in 26 states, the CDC reported Sunday. Alaska does not have any suspected cases of the virus.

The virus shows symptoms similar to those of flu or upper-respiratory infection. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports it can spread from person to person, although it’s unclear how contagious the virus is.

The single flight is expected to transport American citizens who were living in Wuhan, including U.S. consulate staff, back to the Lower 48. It’s unclear what day this week the flight will leave. The plane will fly on to Ontario, California, the U.S. Embassy said. It’s unclear if passengers will be quarantined when they reach their final destination.

The plane will be refueled at the Anchorage airport’s north terminal, which is closed to the public. Officials from the CDC’s Anchorage Quarantine Station will be re-screening passengers in the closed terminal. Zink said the passengers will also be monitored throughout the flight.

Hermoine Dickey, 8, rides in a car on her way to Wuhan Tiange International Airport for a U.S. evacuation flight Tuesday, January 28, 2020. The U.S. government is chartering a flight to transport several hundred diplomats, family members, and other Americans out of Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the heart of a new virus outbreak. (Priscilla Dickey via AP)

“Any flights suspected of carrying passengers with communicable diseases will be isolated," airport manager Jim Szczesniak said in a statement. "All international flights and flights suspected of carrying passengers with a communicable disease are processed in the North Terminal where CDC staff and quarantine facilities are located.”

The Department of Health and Social Services activated the Emergency Operations Center over the weekend as a precautionary measure. Zink said the center is routinely activated before diseases reach Alaska as a preventative measure.

“It’s the same system that we set up when there’s an earthquake or there’s any sort of other risk to the population or to the health of Alaskans,” she said.

Hospitals in Anchorage and the Mat-Su have been notified about the plane’s landing and are prepared to treat or quarantine anyone potentially infected, Zink said. Officials from Providence Alaska Medical Center said Monday that they are equipped and ready to handle any possible infections.

The hospital began screening all incoming patients for coronavirus on Wednesday, said Rebecca Hamel, the manager of infectious disease prevention at Providence.

The hospital has more than 35 specialized isolation rooms that will prevent the spread of infectious diseases. If a patient is diagnosed with coronavirus, they would be quarantined in the room so that their symptoms could be monitored and to prevent the spread of the illness. Staff wears special protective gear to prevent transferring any illness to the rest of the hospital.

Chief Medical Officer Michael Bernstein said the coronavirus ranges from appearing like a cold to severe pneumonia. There are no medicines to attack the virus, so Bernstein said the care is mainly supportive.

Providence hospital and others in the area are fully prepared to handle a coronavirus patient, if needed, officials said Monday.

“We do this everyday,” said Providence’s leadership team manager Christine Winn. “We have respiratory illnesses that require people to be in isolation and have people in contact that require them to be in isolation. So for this, this is an everyday thing for us.”