Local US officials start to push back on coronavirus quarantine plans

The Washington State Patrol Fire Training Academy near North Bend has been chosen as a new quarantine site for people returning to the United States.
The Washington State Patrol Fire Training Academy near North Bend has been chosen as a new quarantine site for people returning to the United States.PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (NYTIMES) - The scramble to find places to quarantine American coronavirus patients is beginning to run into resistance from local officials who do not want the patients housed in their backyards.

The city of Costa Mesa, California, has gone to court to block state and federal officials, at least temporarily, from placing dozens of people evacuated from Asia in a state-owned residential centre in their community.

And Alabama officials have reacted with alarm to news that coronavirus patients could be sent as early as Wednesday (Feb 26) to a Federal Emergency Management building on a former army base in Anniston, Alabama, about140km west of Atlanta.

Uncertainty and distrust are stymieing federal attempts to plan for quarantining Americans who are infected with the coronavirus. At least 34 people in the United States have tested positive for the virus, most of them after travelling abroad, and authorities have warned of the seriousness of the threat.

So far, no one in the United States has died of the disease, and at least four patients in this country are said to have fully recovered.

Yet local officials have expressed concerns that little is being done to prepare for a potential influx of patients, and that much is still unknown about the virus, which has killed at least 2,461 people, all but 19 of them in mainland China.

At a hastily called news conference on Saturday, elected officials in Costa Mesa, a city of 113,000 people about60km south of Los Angeles, expressed opposition to a state plan to send dozens of patients to the Fairview Developmental Centre, a nearly vacant state hospital formerly used for people with developmental disabilities.

"We're a compassionate community," said the city's mayor, Ms Katrina Foley. "But we are not going to continue to be the place where everybody drops off their crises and expects us to correct it."

The patients involved would be people now quarantined at Travis Air Force Base who have tested positive for the coronavirus but do not have severe symptoms requiring hospital care.

Several people confirmed to have the virus are quarantined in their homes across the United States, but that is not an option for some, including people who do not live alone; the authorities are trying to find a secure place for them to stay.

Wherever they go, they would be kept away from contact with the public until the danger of contagion passes.

 

Local officials in Costa Mesa were told of the plan on Thursday night, and filed a request for an emergency injunction in federal court on Friday. The court issued a temporary injunction, pending a hearing at 2pm on Monday, when it will consider whether to extend it.

"Of course we want people to be cared for," Ms Foley said in an interview on Sunday. "We just don't think this is an appropriate site," she said, noting that it was next to a golf course, a soccer field and a densely populated residential neighbourhood.

The mayor, who is running for a state Senate seat as a Democrat, said she was told on a conference call with federal officials on Friday that the military wanted the coronavirus patients moved off all its bases to eliminate the risk that troops would be exposed.

"I don't want anyone exposed, military or otherwise," Ms Foley said.

The city's 14-page request for a restraining order lists as defendants a group of state and federal actors, including the Defence Department, the Air Force, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of California and Governor Gavin Newsom's Office for Emergency Services.

"Plaintiffs now seek to prevent Costa Mesa from becoming ground zero to a state and potentially nationwide public health crisis caused because the state and federal governments have not sought to include local officials and emergency personnel in the planning and execution of their efforts," the city told the court in its filing.

The federal government responded by telling the court that the city's request was "ill-informed and legally baseless" and that it "endangers the safety and well-being of the American people" by interfering with state and federal efforts to cope with the crisis.

"Instead of providing public health expertise (or any expertise), plaintiffs ask this court to rely on Internet statements and speculation," the federal response said, adding that the centre in Costa Mesa "would be better for public health than the alternatives, which consist of using hospitals or home isolation".

 
 

The city appeared to acknowledge that it might be powerless to stop the state from sending patients to the centre.

In its court filing, it instead asked the court to order that "the state and federal government stop acting under the cover of darkness", and that they provide the city's emergency personnel with appropriate training to deal with the coronavirus.

The question of where to house infected patients gained urgency on Saturday after the federal government indicated that people with the virus who were evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan could not remain at the air base.

"These people are at Travis Air Force Base right now - why can't they stay there?" said Ms Jennifer Keller a lawyer in Irvine, California, who helped Costa Mesa file for the injunction.

The city questioned whether the Fairview centre was in good enough repair to be used for quarantine housing.

As recently as Feb 5, the city said in its court filing, state officials deemed it unsuitable for an emergency homeless shelter without extensive renovations.

In her ruling on Friday, US District Judge Josephine Staton wrote that the state's plan to move patients to Costa Mesa as early as Sunday "without conducting an adequate site survey or providing sufficient safeguards against transmission of the disease" constituted an immediate threat.

Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama said in a statement on Sunday that she learned late on Friday night about a plan by the Health and Human Services Department to relocate some patients evacuated from the Diamond Princess to the former army base in Anniston.

 
 

She quickly informed Alabama's senators and members of Congress, prompting two rounds of conference calls among Alabama elected officials, federal health officials and the White House.

"I made it abundantly clear that while the state of Alabama wants to work closely with the Trump administration to assist fellow Americans who may have tested positive for the coronavirus, there were some grave concerns about why the site in Anniston was chosen and how, logistically, this would play out," the governor's statement said.

"First and foremost, my priority is to protect the people of Alabama."

The Alabama Department of Public Health later issued a statement saying it had been assured by federal officials that the plan to house patients in Anniston was only a backup plan in case facilities in other states could not handle the load, and that no patients were scheduled to be sent to Alabama.