LOS ANGELES — When 195 Americans, including diplomats, were evacuated from Wuhan, China, last month, they were tested for the coronavirus on arrival at a California military base. Health officials swabbed the throats and noses of everyone in the group — the first to be evacuated from Wuhan — and they were relieved when all of their tests came back negative.
But as more government-arranged flights evacuated Americans from China in the days that followed, the federal health authorities adopted a new protocol: Only people who showed symptoms of illness during a 14-day quarantine period would be tested. For some among the more than 600 people who are still waiting to be cleared to go home from military bases in three states, the new rule has left them worried — and angry. Some are pleading with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test them for the coronavirus.
“We are not asking for skateboards or toys,” said Jacob Wilson, 33, one of more than 30 people in quarantine on a base in San Diego who signed a petition this week calling for tests. “We are asking to get tested and make sure we are not passing anything to other people.”
The concerns come as three people in quarantine on bases in San Diego and San Antonio, Texas, tested positive for the virus, which has killed more than a thousand people in China but so far has been found to have infected only 15 people in the United States.
At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, where 232 people are waiting out a government-mandated two-week quarantine, some evacuees said they worried that they and their children had spent days mingling with people — in an eating area, on a playground and in a laundry room — and would like to know for sure whether or not they have the virus.
“We believe testing everyone at the facility would help identify potential suspects as early as possible, so the appropriate treatment could be put in place,” the evacuees wrote in the petition, which they called a “suggestion letter” and shared with one another over WeChat, a Chinese instant-messaging app.
The C.D.C., however, has declined to test every evacuee. Officials said that such tests are less accurate before people show symptoms, so a negative early result could be misleading rather than helpful. The agency tested everyone on the first evacuation flight, the officials said, because they were learning about the virus and because doing so allowed them to collect more data about it. Since then, they said, they have determined that swabbing hundreds of seemingly healthy people is not useful.
“Every test has a limit of detection,” said Dr. Joseph Bresee, the associate director of global health affairs for the C.D.C.’s influenza division. “Early on, the test may or may not be able to pick it up.”
Almost everyone who gets sick from the virus will show symptoms within 14 days of exposure, often early within that window, Dr. Bresee said. Evacuees on military bases are having their temperature checked at least twice a day and are asked to alert health officials if they feel sick or if their temperature rises.
Dr. Bresee said that he empathized with evacuees who want definitive answers about whether they are healthy.
“They’re concerned, they’re nervous, and they want to be assured of their safety,” he said, adding that the cost of testing was not a factor in the decision not to test everyone. “We don’t think testing would be helpful, and if we did, we would test them.”
About 1,000 Americans are believed to live in Wuhan, where the outbreak began. As the number of confirmed cases soared and commercial carriers suspended flights out of the city, the United States began chartering planes to bring home citizens who were stranded there.
On the San Diego base, where evacuees have been waiting since last week, not everyone was calling for more testing. John McGory, who is among the group, said some people did not support the petition. Some in the group said fears had been blown out of proportion and that the C.D.C.’s approach seemed reasonable.
The C.D.C. on Thursday announced the latest confirmed coronavirus case in the United States as having been identified among the evacuees at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. The person had been under quarantine on the base until symptoms emerged. The person was taken to a hospital and was stable with mild symptoms, the C.D.C. said. In announcing the new case, the C.D.C. said there would likely be more confirmed cases in the coming days.
At the San Diego base, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Mr. Wilson and others said that people had to leave their rooms to get breakfast, lunch and dinner from a small room, which is also where their temperatures were taken. People rummaged through boxes of fruit and snacks with their bare hands, he said, and they stood shoulder to shoulder in line waiting to check their temperatures despite being told to stay six feet away from one another.
After the petition was circulated, health officials agreed as of Thursday to deliver meals and take temperatures at the room doors of evacuees who preferred it that way.
“The reality is, it’s impossible for us to keep any distance from each other,” said Mr. Wilson, a tech entrepreneur in Wuhan. He and others also said officials had not required evacuees to wear masks.
Earlier in the week, a labeling error led the authorities to return an ill woman to the base from a San Diego hospital, though a test later showed that she had the coronavirus. The mistake raised new worries among some evacuees. The C.D.C. had erroneously informed the hospital that the woman had tested negative for the virus when, in fact, her samples had not been tested. Health officials have tried to calm concerns, saying the woman had been isolated from other evacuees before returning to the hospital.
Dr. Bresee said that health officials were learning more about the virus each day, but that there were no plans to change testing procedures for the hundreds in quarantine.
“As we learn more, we may pivot,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we were wrong once and are right now, it just means we’re learning.”
Miriam Jordan reported from Los Angeles, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York. Amy Qin contributed reporting from San Diego.
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