Jet evacuates Americans from China outbreak zone

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA (AP) – An airplane that a federal official said was evacuating as many as 240 Americans from a Chinese city at the centre of a virus outbreak departed yesterday has landed in the United States (US).

The US government chartered the plane to fly out diplomats from the US Consulate in Wuhan, where the latest coronavirus outbreak started, and other US citizens. The plane is making a refuelling stop in Alaska before flying on to Southern California, the US Embassy in China has said.

The white cargo plane with red and gold stripes and no passenger windows arrived at the mostly desolate North Terminal just after 9.30pm on Tuesday, local time.

The jetway was extended from the end of the terminal, but it also had no windows. Passengers were not visible.

Media were held in a concourse between the airport’s two terminals, about 100 yards from the plane. Airport workers were buzzing around the plane after it landed.

A Boeing 747-4B5(F), on a charter flight from Wuhan, China, arrives at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska. PHOTO: AFP

Alaska health officials said a news conference will be held later.

On Tuesday night, it was announced that the plane would land at March Air Reserve Base in California’s Riverside County instead of at Ontario International Airport in neighbouring San Bernardino County.

Curt Hagman, an Ontario airport commissioner, said the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) announced the diversion.

“We were prepared but the State Department decided to switch the flight” to the airbase, Hagman said.

Wuhan is the epicentre of a new virus that has sickened thousands and killed more than 100 and the official said on Tuesday that the plane left the city before dawn yesterday, China time.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorised to speak publicly.

In Anchorage, Alaska, passengers were set to go through customs and CDC screening.

“Then they will put them back on the plane and then send them on to their final destination,” said Jim Szczesniak, manager of the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. He didn’t know how long it would take beyond “hours.”

The passengers are being isolated in the airport’s international terminal, which lies mostly dormant in the winter months.

Szczesniak stressed the terminal is not connected to the larger and heavily used domestic flights terminal, and each has separate ventilation systems.

The lobby in the international terminal was nearly empty on Tuesday afternoon, and an airport employee was seen jogging through though the facility that has closed counters for companies like Korean Air, China Airlines and Asiana Airlines.

There are two businesses operating at either end of the ticket coutners, a 4×4 rental agency and a satellite office of the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles.

Because the terminal is only active in the summer, it allows the airport to practice situations such as this one.

“In the winter time, we have the ability and the luxury of not having any passenger traffic over there, so it’s a perfect area for us to handle this kind of flight,” he said.

Officials at the Ontario airport 35 miles east of Los Angeles had been readying facilities to receive and screen the repatriates and temporarily house them for up to two weeks – if the CDC determined that is necessary, said David Wert, spokesman for the county of San Bernardino. Ontario International Airport was designated about a decade ago by the US government to receive repatriated Americans in case of an emergency overseas but it would have been the first time the facility was used for the purpose, Wert said.

Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, and in more severe cases shortness of breath or pneumonia.

China has cut off access to Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province to prevent people from leaving and spreading the virus further. In addition to the US, countries including Japan and South Korea have also planned evacuations.