Georgia has been given federal permission to help return home 31 state residents who have been quarantined at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta since their cruise ship was hit by the coronavirus, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Saturday.
The governor also authorized calling up as many as 2,000 Georgia National Guard troops to active duty to help with the transfer and “ensure the steady supply of medical equipment, food, shelter, or related materials to keep Georgians safe.”
In a Twitter post on Saturday, Kemp said officials would race to transfer the Georgians at the base back to their homes “as soon as possible,” adding that other state emergency staffers will help with the move.
Nearly 500 passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship have been sent to Dobbins, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday. Some have complained about the conditions there.
Gail Egan, 62, an optician from Homer Glen, Ill., said she arrived at Dobbins with her sister and two friends early Friday morning.
She expects all of them must remain there at least until March 27, the end of their 14-day quarantine, though she said they all feel fine. She added she is thrilled for the Georgians who will be returning home from Dobbins, “but it is heartbreaking for us.” Egan called the conditions at Dobbins “deplorable,” “foul” and “nasty.”
“When we first got here… there was no toilet paper, no soap, no towels, no shampoo. None of the basic things you need,” she said. “We still do not have our luggage. We were delivered toilet paper eight hours after we got here. We were delivered soap and shampoo about two hours ago today.”
“I am sure none of us will be sick from the virus,” she continued, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if we get something from the unsanitary conditions in here. It is so filthy. It is unbelievable. I wouldn’t wash my dog in the showers here.”
Egan said she won’t request being tested for COVID-19 at Dobbins because she doesn’t want to be found positive and kept there indefinitely.
“This is not the place to be held,” she said. “If I don’t ask for the test, I will go home. And if I think I have symptoms or if I think I have any doubt, I would get tested at home where I know I will be in a clean, sanitary facility.”
Dobbins has referred questions to the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A spokesman for the CDC said in an email Saturday that a different division of HHS is overseeing operations at Dobbins.
“The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) is in charge of this operation. CDC is providing assistance, but is not in charge,” CDC spokesman Bert Kelly wrote.
On Saturday, an HHS spokesperson said: “Over the past two days, HHS has relocated almost 500 passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship to Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Our top priorities were to screen passengers for symptoms, address any underlining health conditions, make sure they had access to their prescription medication, and get them settled into their rooms. Starting this weekend, passengers will be offered COVID-19 testing. Collecting swab samples from such a large group will take several days.
“Yesterday evening, we began hosting telephonic town halls with our guests. It is our plan to conduct these communication calls regularly to share information, answer questions and hear directly from guests about their concerns. This unprecedented response has presented significant logistical challenges. We have assigned case managers to each of the guests to individually address their needs. We recognize this has been a stressful experience and we remain dedicated to providing support to the passengers.
“As of this morning, 497 passengers were at Dobbins. We have just under 400 rooms on Dobbins. All guests have a room. Please keep in mind that many of the passengers are part of a family unit so, for example, spouses are staying in the same room.”
U.S. Sen. David Perdue spoke Friday with Robert Kadlec, HHS’ assistant secretary for preparedness and response, seeking an immediate solution, said Casey Black, a spokeswoman for Perdue.
“He pressed him for answers and he said that HHS needs to cut through the bureaucracy that is happening and work with Gov. Kemp because the governor is ready to provide state resources,” Black said. “I think that helped with the breakthrough.”
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler also spoke to Kadlec.
“She thanks Dobbins officials and Governor Kemp for their tireless work to bring attention to these matters and address them,” Loeffer’s office said in a statement. “She recognizes HHS was faced with more passengers than expected and appreciates their work to expedite this tough situation.”
The Georgia passengers live across the state, according to Kemp’s office, including in: Acworth, Augusta, Byron, Centerville, Chatsworth, Dallas, Evans, Hoschton, LaFayette, Marietta, McDonough, Powder Springs, Senoia, Summerville, Tennille, Valdosta, Warner Robins and Woodstock.
The return process is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Saturday. State health officials are emailing each of them quarantine instructions. Local public health officials will get involved once they are released to go home.
A total of 21 people aboard the cruise ship tested positive for the COVID-19 infection, Vice President Mike Pence said last week during a Coronavirus Task Force press briefing. Of those, 19 were crew members and two were passengers.
Carnival’s Princess Cruises on Thursday became the second cruise line to announce it was shutting down operations due to the global outbreak. The company said it would halt operations of its entire fleet of ships for two months, according to CNBC.
The passengers arriving in Georgia are asymptomatic, Dobbins officials said Thursday in a news release.
“Prior to arriving here, the passengers were medically screened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” officials said. “Quarantined individuals do not show symptoms of illness and are quarantined as a precaution.”
Should any of the quarantined passengers be diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease, procedures are in place to transport them to a hospital in the area.
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.
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