Coronavirus evacuees to make virus screening, refuel stop at Anchorage airport

This highly magnified, digitally colorized transmission electron microscopic image reveals details of a single Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV. It’s a relative of the novel coronavirus identified in 2019 in Wuhan, China. (Public domain image courtesy National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Amid the global spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of Americans being evacuated from China will stop briefly at an Alaska airport. On Monday, the state’s Department of Health and Social Services announced a chartered flight repatriating around 240 Americans will refuel at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, although officials do not yet know exactly when. During that time, a portion of the facility will be closed to the public and set up as a quarantine center to conduct health screenings on passengers before they continue on to home in the Lower 48.

In a news conference Monday morning, state officials stressed that the risk of illness to Alaskans from the measures is minimal.

Related: Cargo flights into Anchorage from Wuhan suspended, no additional Chinese medical flights planned, officials say

According to DHSS, many of the U.S. citizens aboard the return flight are consular staff and their families, leaving the city of Wuhan as the coronavirus outbreak intensifies. Officials in Alaska say they were contacted over the weekend by federal partners inquiring about capacity and capabilities for assisting with refueling and healthcare screenings. In a release, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state was asked to help facilitate the return of Americans from overseas, and has been “working closely to ensure the health and safety of all Alaskans while assisting with this request.”

But there are still a lot of variables up in the air, such as the timing of when the refueling will take place.

“It’s been an interesting 48 hours to say the least,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer.

“Things nationally and internationally are evolving incredibly quickly. This has to do with the Chinese government. They have shut down all travel in and out of the city,” Zink added. “Our federal partners are really coordinating with all of that.”

[Related: Here’s how Alaska is preparing for the Wuhan coronavirus]

According to Zink, the American passengers will be screened for the virus before traveling out of China. If they show symptoms, they will not be allowed to board the flight. Health officials will monitor passengers during transit. Ted Stevens’ north terminal has been shut down to the public, and a quarantine center has been set up. There, professionals from the Centers for Disease Control will re-screen all the passengers aboard. State and federal officials are coordinating with area hospitals, Zink said, and are developing multiple contingency plans in case any of the returning travelers show signs of illness.

“Our goal is to minimize, in general, the connection between these passengers, as well as all personnel, but also Alaskans,” she said.

State officials said they have not been told where exactly the plane will fly after refueling, and cannot say for certain if this is a one-time measure or likely to continue in the coming weeks.

Situated in between Asia and the Lower 48, Ted Stevens is a frequent stopping point for refueling during trans-Pacific flights.

As of Sunday, the World Health Organization reported 2,014 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, with 56 deaths, according to DHSS. In the United States, five cases have been confirmed, according to the CDC. At this point, there have been no cases in Alaska, although one traveler through the nearby Seattle-Tacoma airport became ill last week, raising concerns.

The virus shares several symptoms with the flu, including fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. This year in the U.S., Zink said, between 15 and 20 million Americans were infected with the flu, and prevention measures for the two ailments are largely the same: “Good hand washing, good hand-hygiene, preventing infectious disease, like (by) getting your flu shot,” she said.

The state has set up a website on the novel coronavirus for Alaskans to stay up to date.