A plane carrying 98 evacuees from the coronavirus-stricken Grand Princess cruise ship landed Tuesday night at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

Ninety-one of the passengers are from Texas, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

But the mayor hasn’t been able to confirm that with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or determine the total number of evacuees that San Antonio can expect, and CDC spokesman Joey Smith said late Tuesday night “whether or not we are getting plane No. 2 tonight is unknown at this time.”

The evacuees arrived on flights out of Oakland, California. The city’s third cohort of evacuees arrives amid controversy, as local and state health officials continue to express concern and frustration over how federal agencies are dealing with the public health emergency.

“It’s been challenging and disconcerting the way the first cohorts [of evacuees] were handled, and the lack of coordination between folks on the ground in San Antonio and those in Washington, D.C.,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report.

Nirenberg testified before the Texas House of Representatives Public Health Committee on Tuesday morning about local COVID-19 preparation efforts and San Antonio’s experience working with federal agencies to quarantine and treat coronavirus evacuees brought to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

Nirenberg said that while there has been no lack of communication among the CDC, the Department of Health and Human Services, and San Antonio officials, “meaningful communication” has been a challenge. The resultm he said, has been the CDC operating unilaterally regarding the overall release of quarantined evacuees, including an initial plan to release people from quarantine at North Star Mall to avoid media attention.

Texas is one of three states so far that have accepted hundreds of evacuees flown out of Wuhan, China, and repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. But the lack of transparency from the CDC regarding plans and procedures has made local and state officials wary of how the situation has and will continue to unfold.

Gov. Greg Abbott last week called the federal government’s response to the coronavirus “unacceptable” after the woman prematurely released from quarantine in San Antonio visited the food court and several stores in North Star Mall before the CDC received re-test results that showed the woman was “weakly positive” for the virus.

“It appears to be a case of negligence with regard to how this person, who had the coronavirus, could leave TCID [the Texas Center for Infectious Disease] and go back into the general population. I think they understand the magnitude of the error they made,” Abbott said.

In response, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County declared a local state of disaster and public health emergency related to coronavirus, delaying the release from quarantine of the second cohort of evacuees, which included 122 cruise ship passengers evacuated from Japan to Lackland.

“A quarantine guarantees no human-to-human contact with people who could put the public at risk, and we depend on proper communication to ensure that happens,” Nirenberg said. “Our position has always been to ensure that the quarantines were conducted in accordance with the guidance of health professionals, with the measure of success being zero exposure to the public.”

Nirenberg also noted that achieving those measures “has been an extraordinary challenge.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaks at a press conference about COVID-19 on Feb. 13. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

CDC officials maintain that because the woman had two negative test results 24 hours apart, it was appropriate to release her.

But Nirenberg disagrees, and told the Rivard Report that if the release “wasn’t coupled with significant challenges with communication and open dialogue that is in coordination with higher-ups in [Washington], we could rest on no harm, no foul.” But that is not happening, he said.

Also testifying before the public health committee Tuesday was Dr. David Persse, public health authority for the Houston Health Department, and Dr. Umair Shah, executive director and local health authority for Harris County. The Houston area now has 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with six cases each in Harris and Fort Bend counties. 

“We know that the entire country is bracing itself for what could be a pandemic, and we have to make sure what is happening in other counties isn’t happening here,” Nirenberg said.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said all evacuees will be kept on base unless they test positive and get transferred directly to the Texas Center for Infectious Disease.

This protocol, which ensures minimal contact with the San Antonio community, did not exist before evacuees began arriving in San Antonio, Nirenberg said.

“We need to know what to expect to handle the situation appropriately which we are now getting more traction with,” Nirenberg said. “The challenge last week was an indicator that that coordination needs to improve dramatically.”

Nirenberg said San Antonio hopes to have a smoother and more communicative situation with the next round of evacuees. “We should know before [the planes] take off, and our hope and expectation is that we will have these issues settled and protocols in.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the Rivard Report.