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Passengers from coronavirus-quarantined ship to be housed at Anniston FEMA center

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Center for Domestic Preparedness

The entrance to FEMA's Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston. 

Updated 5:24 a.m. See also: Coronavirus Q & A with federal officials

Some passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined for coronavirus infections will be evacuated to Anniston’s Center for Domestic Preparedness, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a move local officials hope to stop.

“They could arrive as early as Wednesday,” said HHS spokeswoman Elleen Kane in a telephone interview Saturday. 

But local officials on Saturday spoke out against the plan, saying they’d not been contacted by federal officials before it was announced. The Calhoun County Commission and the city councils of Anniston, Oxford and Weaver all plan emergency meetings Sunday to discuss legal action.

The release said the evacuees tested positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus first observed late last year in Wuhan, China. The passengers, all Americans, have no symptoms or only mild, flu-like symptoms, according to the release. 

In a conference call with reporters, HHS administrator Tom Bowman said potential evacuees would come from among passengers now quarantined at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., or Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He said that under the quarantine arrangement at those bases, evacuees couldn’t remain on site once they tested positive for the virus.

The CDP, a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility, will house the patients, while Health and Human Services manages treatment. The evacuated passengers will stay isolated from the center’s training participants and remain at the facility until they are medically cleared, according to the release. The release says any evacuees who become seriously ill will be treated at “pre-identified hospitals.”

Kane said the evacuees will be housed in a CDP dormitory “to protect health, and at the same time, keep hospital beds open for people who actually need them,” such as people with serious cases of the flu. Asked how many people would arrive, Kane said the number would vary, though she noted that the CDP has 48 rooms available. 

“The evacuees will be flown in a small plane to Anniston and will ride in a federally arranged vehicle from the airport to the dorm,” Kane wrote in an email to The Star. “The planes and vehicles will be cleaned and sanitized, carefully following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Michael Barton, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency, said that he had spoken with officials at the CDP after the news release. HHS had not sent any prior notice, he said, to either the EMA or to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Anniston City Manager Steven Folks also said he’d not been given any notice about the evacuees. 

CDP management told Barton they only knew that evacuees were to arrive early in the week, but not how many or their condition. 

“We will be providing some communication throughout our elected officials and first responders as well as health care facilities,” Barton said, “and public education in general terms of what this means or what impacts there could be for the county — though we expect none.”

Jack Draper, Anniston mayor, and Tim Hodges, chairman of the Calhoun County Commission, held a brief press conference Saturday afternoon. Draper stressed that city officials had been given no information beyond what was in the HHS release, including how many people will arrive, how their treatment will be administered and what hospitals have been chosen to handle seriously ill patients. He said that federal authorities had offered their assurances that the community would be safe. 

“It is important to stress and emphasize that the federal government has assured us that these patients will not have an impact on the local community,” Draper said. 

Draper said there had been no notice of the decision between the HHS and FEMA to transport evacuees to the CDP and no input was sought from the city. 

Hodges said he would like to try stalling the arrival of the quarantine evacuees through legal means. He referenced Costa Mesa, Calif., another city chosen to host evacuees, which received a temporary restraining order from a federal judge to stop the action. 

“The CDP is a world-class facility,” Hodges said, “but I don’t believe this area is ready to take this on.” 

The City Council later on Saturday announced it would hold an emergency meeting at 10 a.m. Sunday “to authorize immediate legal action to avoid physical injury to persons.” The County Commission also announced a meeting for 2 p.m. Sunday, with plans to discuss joint litigation with the city of Anniston over the coronavirus and potentially declaring an emergency. In an announcement sent Saturday night, the Calhoun County EMA said the Oxford City Council will meet at 3 p.m. Sunday ”in support of the Calhoun County Commission and the City of Anniston.” Weaver's mayor also announced a city council meeting set for 10 a.m. Sunday.

U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, tweeted Sunday night that he’d spoken to President Donald Trump, who “agreed with me” that the plan to bring evacuees to Anniston “is the wrong decision.”FEMA operates the CDP, which is located on part of the former Fort McClellan. The center’s staff train civilian first responders from around the country to respond to natural and manmade disasters.

CDP Superintendent Tony Russell said the evacuees would stay in a dormitory on the CDP campus in a gated area, and would have no contact with trainees at the center. Russell said training would continue on schedule, with about 350 people training at the center next week.