FAIRFIELD (CBS13) — Officials from the U.S. State Department held a conference call for reporters on Monday morning to address the 14 confirmed coronavirus cases that were initially transported to Travis and Lackland Air Force Bases late Sunday night and early Monday morning.
Department officials said that the passengers that boarded the two chartered flights by the State Department were Americans looking to leave the quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked in Japan.
More than 300 Americans were screened for the virus as they disembarked the ships as they headed to 15 buses which would take them to the planes. On the call, officials with the Bureau of Medical Services stated that the passengers showed no signs of the virus.
It wasn’t until one of the first buses departed for the planes, U.S. health officials were alerted to 14 people who had tested positive for the virus.
A spokesperson on conference call told CBS13 that the infected passengers were placed in an isolated area until a decision could be made whether they’d be allowed to board.
The decision to allow them to board was made in two parts. One factor is that the infected passengers fit the profile for evacuees and they were already in the evacuee pipeline. The other factor is the passengers were asymptomatic, not showing any signs of having the virus, despite testing positive.
“I think it was an awkward position that they were in because I’m not sure what they were going to do with those people,” Doctor Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, said.
Blumberg said because the people who tested positive for coronavirus were asymptomatic, they were less contagious, which could have played a role in allowing them to board the planes.
“You can imagine a person who is symptomatic with the infection: they’re coughing, they’re sneezing, and that gets the droplets out into the air where you can breathe them in,” Blumberg said.
The state department says it created an isolated tent in the back of the planes for infected passengers. Blumberg says that likely helped cut down on the virus spreading.
“Air does recirculate but again this is a droplet-borne pathogen primarily. So with the droplets, they’re relatively heavy, so they tend to fall to the ground within six feet,” Blumberg said.
Not all of the Americans aboard the Diamond Princess decided to leave, including a Sacramento couple. Matthew Smith says he didn’t think it made sense to risk leaving the quarantine he was already under on the ship.
“I was glad it confirmed the decision that what we made particularly in light of the criticism I was getting on Twitter,” Smith said. “I understand if the people weren’t symptomatic. I get it. But had they been in the ship still it doesn’t matter. Because the Japanese government was still taking everyone off the ship who was positive and would continue to do so.”
It’s a decision even experts aren’t sure was right or wrong.
“I don’t know what the right call is and I’m not sure what the right decisions are. So people have to make their own decisions,” Blumberg said. “The problem with this is that it’s a rapidly changing situation.”
Blumberg said concerns like Smith’s are valid.
“So it’s not impossible that they’d be recirculated,” Blumberg said, “But they’re less likely to be recirculated compared to other viruses.”
Smith says the little uncertainty he has about being able to leave the cruise quarantine is outweighed by the decision he and his wife made.
“But I take that little anxiety over the horrible trip what was involved in that supposed rescue,” Smith said.