Coronavirus: What’s happening to people flying back from China?

Commuters arriving in Hong Kong wear facemasks as they pass the cross boundary restricted area inside the high-speed train station connecting Hong Kong to mainland China during a public holiday in celebration of the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong on Jan. 28, 2020, as a preventative measure following a virus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/TNS)
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By John Woolfolk and Julia Prodis Sulek The Mercury News (TNS)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Nearly everyone wore face masks aboard the Asiana jetliner that carried passengers from Seoul in South Korea across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco on Tuesday. Flight attendants patrolled the aisles asking if they felt ill. Passengers jumped at the slightest cough — worried they could be exposed to the deadly coronavirus spreading through China.

“We had a couple coughers,” said Brian Hatley, from Klamath Falls, Ore., who had visited the Philippines where the first novel coronavirus fatality outside of China was reported, after arriving at SFO on a layover before catching his connecting flight. “It made me nervous. I think this could spread like wildfire.”

His concerns could be justified. Also on Tuesday, five health care workers at Good Samaritan Hospital were sent home after possible exposure to the virus from the first Santa Clara County case.

Most passengers arriving at San Francisco International were allowed to go on or go home, depending on whether they had been near the outbreak in China.

As U.S. health authorities race to get ahead of the coronavirus outbreak that has alarmed health officials around the world since it first erupted in Wuhan, China, they’ve clamped down on inbound flights from the stricken country and imposed restrictions on travelers.

Several airlines have suspended travel, including United Airlines, which announced its last flight from mainland China would be Feb. 5. But at San Francisco International on Tuesday, there were three arrivals from China and two departures, as well as other international flights carrying passengers who had traveled through the country. As a nearby military base geared up to receive those being quarantined from incoming flights, airport workers, travelers and their loved ones were gripped with anxiety.

Charles Johnston, who runs a Santa Rosa winery, feared that his wife, Amy Deng, and their 8-year-old daughter who had traveled to Guangzhou, China, to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family, wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country.

“Believe me, I’ve been on the phone for eight hours just to get them on that flight,” Johnston said. “I worried they would have to stay there.”

In the International Terminal at SFO on Tuesday morning, airport staff were preparing to meet a flight coming from Hong Kong. Passenger service assistants, who escort travelers in wheelchairs, were donning masks and gloves.

“Everyone is scared — oh my gosh,” said Mina Karki, who works for Prospect Services. “We have no choice. We need the money, and they need the people.”

“I have four children at home. I don’t want to get sick,” said Noel Mirano, who works for Prospect Services.

As of Tuesday morning, the coronavirus has sickened 20,630 people worldwide, with 3,241 of those confirmed cases reported in the last 24 hours, according to the World Health Organization. The vast majority of those cases — 20,471 — are in China, where 2,788 are severely ill and 425 have died.

Outside of China, there are 159 confirmed cases in 23 countries, including the United States. One man in the Philippines died. The number of people confirmed to have the virus in the U.S. held at 11 Tuesday, with six of them in California. The highest concentration is in the Bay Area, with two reported in Santa Clara County and two others, a husband and wife, in San Benito County.

Travel restrictions outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week are applied based on U.S. citizenship, which parts of China the traveler visited and any signs of illness.

“The growing volume of exported cases to countries around the world, the continued reporting of deaths, including the first death outside of China, and reports of person to person spread outside China, including the United States, are all cause for concern,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

U.S. officials have directed flights from China to 11 airports, including SFO. Oakland International does not have flights from China. And at Mineta San Jose International, Hainan Airlines suspended flights this week through the end of March.

According to Messonnier, a presidential proclamation suspends entry to the U.S. of foreign nationals who have visited mainland China within the past 14 days into the United States. The exclusion does not apply to those coming from Hong Kong and Macau, and immediate family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are exempted and will be allowed into the country.

For those allowed entry to the U.S. but who visited mainland China in the last two weeks, what happens to them upon their arrival depends on whether they traveled to Hubei province, which includes the city of Wuhan at the center of the outbreak.

All will be screened for telltale symptoms of infection such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing. If they have symptoms, they will be transferred for further medical evaluation and isolated for 14 days. But those without symptoms who visited Hubei province will be subject to mandatory 14-day quarantine, while those who didn’t will be allowed to continue on to their final destination, and stay home and monitor their health for 14 days once they get there.

Four military bases — including Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield — were selected to house individuals who were evacuated while traveling overseas during the outbreak.

According to a Travis Air Force Base Facebook post, the base was selected to assist the Department of Health and Human Services at the request of Defense Secretary Mark Esper to provide housing for at least 250 people at four different Department of Defense installations through Feb. 29.

Travis personnel were not immediately available to discuss how they are handling those quarantined but said on the base’s Facebook site that the travelers will be housed at Travis’ Westwind Inn lodging facility and will have no direct contact with Travis personnel.

“A safety cordon will be established, away from residential housing, to ensure the Travis mission can safely continue, the privacy of the evacuees can be enforced, and to protect the health and welfare of our Team Travis community,” the base indicated in its Facebook post. Health and Human Services will be responsible for all care, transportation and security of the evacuees during the quarantine period.

Jonathan Rath Hoffman, Esper’s public affairs assistant, said the other three bases were the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and the 168th Regiment Regional Training Institute in Colorado. Nearly 200 embassy staff and families who were evacuated from Wuhan last week are quarantined at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside.

Messonnier said the CDC said it would provide “additional guidance” to state officials on “how to monitor this process.”

Rebecca Gao, of San Francisco, who landed at SFO Tuesday on an Air China flight from Beijing, said she was happy to be home after visiting her mother in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou.

“I’m glad I came back here, but I’m worried about my family and friends back in China,” Gao said. “As soon as we heard about the virus, everybody stayed home. We stocked up on fruits and vegetables.”

Johnston’s wife Amy Deng said she felt all the fuss was excessive.

“People are totally overreacting,” Deng said.

Even so, Johnston was relieved when they returned and were cleared to return home with him.

“Daddy!” their daughter, Daisy, squealed as she flew into Johnston’s arms after their 13-hour flight.

“You made it!” Johnston replied.

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