‘You Can’t Make This Shit Up’: Inside the Brewing Coronavirus Mutiny at a California Marine Base
A petition from panicked evacuees echoes concerns about whether people without symptoms can transmit the deadly disease, including in the U.S.
Evacuees from the epicenter of the new, deadly coronavirus under quarantine at a Marine Corps base in San Diego veered toward revolt on Wednesday after U.S. officials admitted to mistakenly releasing an infected patient back into the group.
Dozens of temporary residents at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar have signed a petition demanding better oversight at the facility, where about 230 people were being held after evacuating last week from China. The fears expressed in the petition, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, echoed concerns raised by experts in recent days about whether individuals without symptoms can transmit the disease.
Jacob Wilson, a 33-year-old American evacuee from Louisiana who works at a tech start-up in Wuhan—the Chinese epicenter of the virus—told The Daily Beast he signed the petition in order to correct what he called “damn near criminal” and “irresponsible” actions by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials responsible for the base’s quarantine protocols.
The petition asks that “everyone in the facility be tested;” that the evacuees be given masks and disinfectants; that hand sanitizers be available in public areas, including a playground; that they not be forced to gather in large groups; that town hall meetings be conducted via conference call; and that public areas be regularly disinfected throughout the day.
The document—written in both English and Chinese, and first reported by local ABC affiliate KGTV-TV—was to be presented to CDC officials Wednesday evening, according to Wilson.
“The CDC’s current working assumption is the virus won’t spread until symptoms develop,” the petition says. “However, we strongly disagree with using that assumption as the basis against broader testing.”
The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
“Everyone who reads about these intensive CDC screenings doesn’t realize that we aren’t even being tested,” said Wilson. “The screenings are a huge joke: temperature check and are you symptomatic. That’s it.”
Wilson told The Daily Beast he was in the second group of flights chartered by the State Department out of Hubei province in China, where more than 1,100 people have died from the disease. Wilson’s flight carried 167 evacuees and arrived in San Diego on Feb. 5. A second flight carrying 65 evacuees arrived the next day. (A previous batch of 195 U.S. evacuees, who stayed at another base in California, were released earlier this week after arriving in January.)
Evacuees on various bases in the U.S. have been ordered to serve 14-day quarantines starting the day each person leaves China, in keeping with what international health officials currently believe to be the high end of the novel coronavirus incubation period. Though people on both of the flights that arrived in San Diego last week were split in two groups upon arrival, Wilson said they all gathered together for meals, meetings, and temperature checks.
“The first three days that we were here, we had no luggage and had no change of clothes and weren’t able to do laundry,” he said. “We’re required to go out three to four times a day from our rooms to get fed and have our temperature taken.”
“We’re trying our best to disinfect things with the hand soap that we’ve been given, even though we don’t have disinfectant,” Wilson added. “We’re frustrated and worried.”
Many evacuees feel that the instructions from the CDC have been confusing and even contradictory, he continued. “They have told us to stand six feet away from each other, and then have us stand shoulder-to-shoulder when they take our temperature,” which Wilson claimed “flies in the face of the protections and precautions.”
Dr. Christopher Braden, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC, said last week that the federal agency was “doing everything possible” to care for the hundreds of American evacuees in their care under mandatory quarantine. But at least some experts suggested such problems would persist as long as there were looming uncertainties about viral transmission.
Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and an expert on U.S. readiness for pandemics, said on Tuesday there were still “active questions about the ability to transmit the virus before symptoms appear,” but that “most of us would say that’s very likely the case.”
“We’re dealing in a world of absolute uncertainty at the moment that goes into decision-making,” said Redlener. “We’re struggling to come up with protocols that make sense in a rapidly spreading viral epidemic.”
For his part, Wilson repeatedly questioned the CDC’s judgment, describing a presentation delivered by Braden that attempted to explain why not everyone needed to be tested. At one point during that presentation, a man took off his face mask and sneezed into the crowd, Wilson said.
“There was a ripple of waves of people moving away from him,” he added. “You can’t make this shit up.”
Every “sneezer,” Wilson continued, creates fear in the group, which has only grown more tense after news broke that a woman who tested positive for the virus was mistakenly released from the University of California San Diego Medical Center after her test kit was mislabeled. She was temporarily returned to the quarantined population at the base on Sunday before doubling back to the hospital on Monday for treatment after the error was discovered.
The CDC on Tuesday admitted to the mistake and said officials at the hospital have since worked closely with federal authorities to ensure it doesn’t happen again. A spokeswoman for the hospital told The New York Times there had been miscommunication over how to identify the patients under evaluation, who were given pseudonyms to protect their privacy. As of Tuesday, the woman was recovering well and had just a minor cough, Braden has said.
“Let me emphasize there was no fault of the test,” Braden said during a press conference on Tuesday. “The test itself was accurate; the issue was the test wasn't run when we thought it had been. We were under a lot of pressure to get results back. We were asking that reports be reported back verbally.”
The San Diego case marked the 13th confirmed patient in the U.S., and the CDC said Wednesday it was preparing for the new coronavirus, which has now sickened more than 45,000 worldwide, to “take a foothold in the U.S.”
“At some point, we are likely to see community spread in the U.S. or in other countries,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters. “This will trigger a change in our response strategy.”
The test mix-up caused “quite a commotion” on the base, according to John McGory, a 65-year-old English teacher who had lived in Wuhan for six years before evacuating on Wilson’s flight last week. McGory told the Times the evacuees learned about the mistake from news reports before they were informed by CDC officials.
Wilson said other evacuees were told that the infected woman “had no close contacts,” but that such a claim begged the question, “Who was she sitting next to for 12 hours on the flight? If sitting next to somebody shoulder-to-shoulder and talking to them for 12 hours doesn’t count as a close contact, then what does?”
Another evacuee, a California-based father of two who requested anonymity over fear of professional repercussions from being tied to the historic epidemic, told The Daily Beast his family arrived at the San Diego base on Wednesday after spending three weeks in Wuhan to celebrate Chinese New Year.
The 44-year-old signed the petition because his family—his wife and two children—shared Wilson’s concerns about being tested for the virus, he told The Daily Beast. Like Wilson, the father said he believed the CDC was providing lackluster precautions inside the facility to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.
“Some of this is based on the honor system: if you have a cough, you report it. But most people here that are in quarantine, they don’t want to be here—they want to leave,” he explained. “So they might not even tell anybody if they feel any symptoms and there are not mandated precautions here other than temperature checks. The level of uncertainty and fear of staying is not encouraging people to come forward.”
The man said he was also at Braden’s presentation on Tuesday, which he confirmed featured a disturbing sneeze, and that he wasn’t convinced by the CDC’s arguments.
“We still feel that we should be tested once,” he said, adding, “You never know the danger of being in a place like this.”
His main complaint: The CDC has not been disinfecting the playground where his two young children spend most of their time, the father said. He added that he and his wife were nervous to leave the facility when the quarantine ends on Feb. 18 over fear that he or his children may unknowingly have the virus and then infect others in their community.
“These are the type of precautions we feel should be basic,” he said. “From the point of view of being a parent, it is scary. It’s one thing for my wife—or me—to get sick, but we’re scared for our kids.”
—Staff writer Pilar Melendez contributed reporting.