The U.S. State Department – against warnings from the CDC and its own prior promise – allowed 14 Americans known to be infected with the Wuhan coronavirus to board a plane with hundreds of healthy passengers. The new strain of pneumonia-like disease is thought to be spread through the air by coughing and sneezing.
Officials with the State Department said that the 14 Americans were among the more almost 400 U.S. citizens released on February 16, 2020 – from an 11-day coronavirus quarantine aboard a cruise ship docked in Yokokohoma, Japan.
The United States Department of State acts as the diplomatic wing of the federal government. Created in 1789, it is the oldest cabinet-level agency in the Executive Branch, responsible for handling the foreign affairs of the federal government. Its staff is composed mainly of diplomats and Foreign Service officers who carry out American foreign policy (including trade, commerce, cultural interests, and security measures) internationally.
On February 3, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued orders to sequester the 3,711 passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship after a passenger on the ship tested positive for COVID-19, the Wuhan coronavirus.
Because it takes about two weeks for symptoms of the novel coronavirus to develop, quarantining anyone exposed – or possibly exposed – to the pathogen limits the people it can infect and slows its spread. However, most people bridle at being forced to idle in place, especially when that place is a small floating cabin.
As of February 21, 634 cruise ship passengers had tested positive for the virus. On February 24, Japanese health minister Katsunobu Kato announced that three passengers had died after contracting the virus.
Before that, on February 15, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo informed all undiagnosed Americans aboard the Diamond Princess that evacuation planes were heading their way to extract them from the pestilent confines of the cruise ship. They would all face a second, mandatory quarantine after returning to U.S. soil to make sure they weren’t coming down with the potentially fatal illness.
The group was screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before they were allowed to board two chartered Boeing 747s on February 16. Absent were 46 Americans who remain hospitalized in Japan after testing positive for the virus.
As the 300-some American cruise ship evacuees were preparing to return stateside, the State Department was notified of the 14 positive test results.
Rather than deny them their welcome home trip and isolate them in Japan for further observation, the infected passengers were “moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols,” according to an official statement.
Cooping up both potentially contagious and uninfected people for hours in a confined space with a shared, recirculated air supply is a risky mix, despite State Department assurances that:
“During the flights, these individuals will continue to be isolated from the other passengers.”
Eighteen seats on the two Boeing 747s had been cordoned off with 10-foot-high plastic on all sides. As an added precaution, infectious disease doctors accompanied the viral patients.
One plane landed at Travis Air Force Base in California and the other at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, according to the Defense Department. No mention was made about whether COVID-19 patients were on one or both aircraft. On arrival in the U.S., all 14 infected cruise ship evacuees will be quarantined for another 14 days.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serves as the leading national public health institute of the United States, developing and applying disease prevention and control, environmental health, and health promotion and health education activities designed to improve the health of every American. The federal agency, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, operates under the Department of Health and Human Services.
The CDC also controls the introduction and spread of infectious diseases and provides consultation and assistance to other nations and international agencies to assist in improving their disease prevention and control, environmental health, and health promotion activities.
Principal deputy director Anne Schuchat warned the State Department in writing that the stricken passengers would pose “an increased risk to the other passengers.”
Despite this warning, the State Department stood on protocol as the reason why the 14 contagious patients were allowed aboard a confined airplane: the Americans were already in the “evacuation pipeline” to come home.
The State Department then kept secret the fact that the 14 evacuees tested positive for COVID-19 until about one hour before the planes landed in Texas and California when it was too late to prevent their return.
Retired nurse Vana Mendizabal (69) who was cruising with her husband Mario reacted to the unexpected and unpleasant news:
“We were upset that people were knowingly put on the plane who were positive. I think those people should not have been allowed on the plane. We feel we were re-exposed. We were very upset about that.”
President Donald Trump was “furious” after learning that officials in his administration authorized the 14 Americans who had tested positive for the coronavirus back to re-enter the U.S. after agreeing that anyone who tested positive should be treated in Japan and not travel with other passengers.