U.S. evacuees freed from coronavirus quarantine, officials fear discrimination

(Reuters) - Nearly 200 people evacuated from the China coronavirus outbreak were released from quarantine in California on Tuesday with officials urging Americans not to shun them, or workers who helped them, after both groups faced discrimination.

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The 195 U.S. citizens, mostly U.S. State Department employees and their families, underwent the United States’ first mandatory quarantine since 1963 after they were evacuated from the coronavirus-stricken Chinese city of Wuhan.

They were flown by government-chartered cargo jet on Jan. 29 to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County about 60 miles (97 km) east of Los Angeles where they were in quarantine for 14-days - the outer limit of the virus’ possible incubation period.

None tested positive for coronavirus, but their arrival stoked unfounded fears in the local community that they or base personnel would spread the disease, Riverside County public health officer Cameron Kaiser told a press conference.

“They don’t need additional tests, they don’t need to be shunned, they don’t have novel coronavirus,” Kaiser told reporters after his department published a photo of the former patients throwing away their masks in a quarantine graduation ceremony.

The fast-spreading virus has killed more than 1,000 people in China, where there have been nearly 43,000 cases. There have been another 319 confirmed cases in 24 other countries, including 13 in the United States.

Over 800 people have been evacuated from Wuhan on six U.S. evacuation flights since Jan. 28. Hundreds have been quarantined on air bases in California, Texas and Nebraska, according to the U.S. State Department.

The March air base group was limited to a fenced quarantine area where only official medical staff were allowed to enter.

Rear Admiral Nancy Knight, who is running the quarantine operation, said base personnel had been refused housing in the local community due to fears they would spread coronavirus and their children had suffered discrimination at school.

She said neither her staff nor evacuees posed a health risk to the public.

“They have been watched more closely than anyone in the United States at this time,” Knight said of the evacuees.

The base has held three commercial airline passengers taken into mandatory quarantine after screening at Los Angeles International Airport, Knight said. One of these three travelers has been released after completing a 14-day quarantine period, she said.

The United States has also authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. government employees and their relatives from Hong Kong, the State Department said on Tuesday.

The authorization was made “out of an abundance of caution related to uncertainties associated” with the disease, according to a department representative.

Reporting by Michael Erman, Manas Mishra, Lisa Lambert and Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker