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American evacuees from China reach final destination after Anchorage stop for coronavirus screening

A Kalitta Air Boeing 747 at the north terminal at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Tuesday evening. (Bill Roth / ADN)

A plane carrying approximately 200 evacuees from Wuhan, China, reached its final destination in California on Wednesday after passengers were screened for symptoms of the potentially deadly coronavirus by a medical team at Anchorage’s international airport.

No individuals on the flight showed symptoms of the virus, said Dr. Anne Zink, the Alaska state health department’s chief medical officer at a press briefing Wednesday morning.

Before making its way to California, the Kalitta Air plane stopped at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to refuel. It departed around 2 a.m. and went to the March Air Reserve Base near Los Angeles, where passengers will be evaluated for any signs of the illness for three days, officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters Wednesday.

The plane, a government-chartered cargo jetliner, held American passengers who were evacuating from the area where the coronavirus outbreak began. Passengers on the plane were screened twice before leaving China, Zink said, and they were continuously monitored by medics during the Tuesday flight.

The passengers who arrived at the Anchorage airport Tuesday night had their temperatures checked and were asked multiple questions in order to check for symptoms, Zink said. The screenings did not include testing bodily fluids.

One person was treated for a minor injury, Zink said, which had occurred before their departure from China.

The flight’s passengers expressed an “overall sense of gratitude, excitement and relief,” Zink said.

“The whole plane erupted into cheers when the crew welcomed them back to the United States,” she said.

A Kalitta Air Boeing 747 carrying U.S. citizens being evacuated from Wuhan, China, made a refueling stop at the north terminal at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Tuesday evening. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The virus, a respiratory illness, is a “novel” — or new — form of the coronaviruses, which are common worldwide, according to the CDC. Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Estimates showed more than 7,711 people had been sickened by the virus in China and 170 people had died through Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. On Wednesday, five people had tested positive for the virus in the U.S., while 92 people in 36 states were under investigation for the illness. Sixty-eight others tested negative, the CDC reported.

After the flight landed in Anchorage on Tuesday, passengers deplaned at the airport’s North Terminal. The North Terminal is completely separate from the rest of the airport, said Jim Szczesniak, the Ted Stevens airport manager.

After departing Anchorage, the flight was originally scheduled to land at the Ontario International Airport in California, but the final destination was changed to March Air Reserve Base instead, according to a video posted by Curt Hagman, an official with the Ontario airport, on Tuesday evening.

Anchorage airport staff will work with the CDC to sterilize the area where evacuees were held, Szczesniak said, and no other passengers are expected in that area until May.

He said the public should have no concern about flying in and out of the airport.

“For people who are going to be coming to the airport to catch domestic flights and stuff like that, you should continue on as you normally operate here at the airport,” Szczesniak said.

The airport was not expecting any more flights from Wuhan, Szczesniak said.

The flight’s crew did not step outside in China and had separate airflow from that of the passengers, Zink said. Individuals screening the passengers wore protective gear, including masks, she said.

Zink said that good hygiene and preparation can help protect against the spread of illness.

“The flu, I still believe, is a much higher risk than this novel coronavirus,” she said at the briefing early Wednesday.

An aircraft carrying U.S. citizens being evacuated from Wuhan, China, made a refueling stop at the north terminal at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport -- pictured here -- on Tuesday evening. (Bill Roth / ADN)
A sign directs travelers to the north terminal at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a telephone briefing Wednesday afternoon that the state had worked with health officials and the U.S. Department of State to create a plan for a refueling stop in Anchorage.

“These are our fellow Americans, and they have families,” Dunleavy said of the passengers on the flight from Wuhan.

Dunleavy said officials made sure that the state of Alaska was safe during the planning process.

“The chance of any Alaskan getting sick as a result of this plane landing and then going through this screening is basically zero,” Dunleavy said, citing health officials. “It’s extremely, extremely low.”

He said the state is known to have its own set of challenges when it comes to things like earthquakes, volcanoes and fires.

“We’re no stranger to needing help,” Dunleavy said. “And I’m glad we’re no stranger to offering help.”

Anchorage is one of 20 CDC quarantine stations nationwide and already screens for a host of illnesses including measles, mumps and tuberculosis, Zink said. The CDC announced this week that the stations would screen travelers for coronavirus.

Anchorage doesn’t have any passenger flights coming from China at this time of year, Szczesniak said. All cargo flights from Wuhan to the Anchorage airport are suspended indefinitely, he said.

Zink said the state is following CDC screening guidelines, which include evaluating whether someone shows symptoms of the illness if they visited somewhere with an outbreak or if they’ve had contact with someone who is sick from the virus.

She said individuals who do meet some of those guidelines are known as “persons under investigation,” or PUIs for short. They’re not patients, Zink said, but people who are being watched more closely.

She noted that although a new virus can be concerning, preparedness can help protect against illnesses.

“Better health does not come from fear,” Zink said. “Better health comes from preparing and planning and working together.”

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