WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday declared a U.S. public health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak, saying it would bar foreign nationals who have set foot in China in the last 14 days from entering the United States and impose other measures on Americans returning from the country.
The steps mark an extraordinary escalation of the administration’s response to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus that has sickened nearly 10,000 people around the world, mostly in China, and killed 213 there.
The ban applies to “foreign nationals, other than immediate family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who have traveled in China within the last 14 days,” Azar said. It will take effect at 5 p.m. Sunday Eastern Time.
In addition, the U.S. government will enforce a two-week mandatory quarantine period for Americans returning from Hubei province, where the outbreak originated.
Federal officials will specify the quarantine facilities that will house the Americans, permanent residents, and their family members returning from Hubei province as the Department of Homeland Security begins to enact screening procedures. All flights from China will be diverted to seven airports: O’Hare in Chicago, John F. Kennedy in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Atlanta.
Americans returning from other parts of China will undergo a proactive health screening at those airports and other select ports of entry, Azar said. Those who do not display symptoms of the coronavirus will be allowed to continue transiting to their final destination and begin a 14-day “self-isolation” period at home, officials said, during which local health authorities will continue to monitor their health status.
“It is likely that we will continue to see more cases in the United States in the coming days and weeks, including some limited person to person transmission,” Azar said. “The American public can be assured the full weight of the U.S. government is working to safeguard the health and safety of the American people.”
The announcement comes as the U.S. government continues to monitor the 195 American citizens evacuated this week via charter plane from Wuhan, the largest city in Hubei. The group landed Wednesday at a U.S. Air Force base outside of Riverside, Calif., where they were initially quarantined voluntarily. The federal government placed them under a mandatory federal quarantine on Friday.
While the travel ban may appear dramatic, Azar said, health officials believe it is a prudent step given how much remains unknown about the novel coronavirus, including its transmissibility.
The moves are at odds with advice from the World Health Organization, which this week has recommended against travel bans or trade restrictions in response to the outbreak. Member countries, however, are not obligated to follow WHO guidance.
Despite the ban on foreign nationals who have set foot in China in the past two weeks, federal officials claimed Friday’s action did not constitute a “travel ban.” While the three flag-carrier U.S. airlines — Delta, United, and American — have voluntarily suspended all flights to and from mainland China, those flights represent just 40% of passenger capacity between the two countries, said Joel Szabat, a top Department of Transportation deputy.
The number of Americans returning home from China has increased in the past week even as overall passenger traffic has nosedived, officials said, meaning it is likely substantial numbers of Americans will continue to re-enter the country despite the two-week self-quarantine period.