By William Thornton | [email protected]
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers said he was on his way to Atlanta Saturday morning for a staffer’s wedding when he heard of a plan to bring Americans infected with the coronavirus to a federal installation in Calhoun County.
Rogers said it wasn’t long before he was on the phone to President Donald Trump, who was on his way to India and was unaware of the plan, he said.
“I am convinced this was a low-level manager that made this decision and it really wasn’t thought through, and I think somebody may lose their job over this, based on what the president told me,” Rogers said.
According to Rogers, Gov. Kay Ivey’s office told him what they had learned the previous night from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: That evacuees from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship docked in Japan during an outbreak of coronavirus would be coming to Anniston’s Center for Domestic Preparedness.
The evacuees had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, but were either asymptomatic or have mild flu-like symptoms.
“Didn’t ask…just informed them,” Rogers recounted at a press conference this morning in Anniston. “Didn’t ask the local leaders. Didn’t make sure the local hospitals were prepared. It was really poorly handled.”
At the same time, other members of Alabama’s congressional delegation, along with Calhoun County’s state and local officials, were on the phone trying to learn what they could to prepare. U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, for example, said in a statement that he and his staff were briefed on the plan.
“We were advised that the announcement on Saturday regarding the CDP was premature, and although the CDP is one of a number of contingency sites, at this time, the multi-agency plan anticipates using other sites first,” Jones said.
The CDP regularly sees hundreds of first responders from around the country who undergo emergency training for response in the event of terrorism or natural disasters.
The announcement made residents uneasy, who began focusing on helicopters seen at the former Fort McClellan site where the CDP is located. Stories began circulating on social media that the patients had already arrived, which authorities said were untrue.
And authorities had many questions, since the CDP is a training facility and not a quarantine site. There was no word on how many patients might be coming, nor how many might follow. The initial reports were that they would be staying at least 60 days, Rogers said. All were over the age of 65.
Immediately, officials had questions. Trainees at the CDP stay in barracks where they sleep and are fed. What precautions were there for staff, who prepared meals and made beds? What might happen if staff got infected? What training might be needed?
“It is in no way equipped to handle infectious diseases,” Rogers said. “These are people who would be housed in barracks out there near individuals that would be housed to train. This is an airborne contagion. Nobody could assure us that these (first responders) would not be contaminated before they went back to their respective communities.”
City and county leaders began gathering what information they could, and preparing legal challenges.
“We wanted to help, but it would not have been the right venue, I’m convinced of that,” State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said.
By Sunday afternoon, Gov. Kay Ivey, Sen. Richard Shelby and Rogers were letting residents know the plans had been scuttled. Rogers said he spoke with President Trump, who was not happy that the patients had been brought back to the continental U.S.
“I won’t use the colorful language he conveyed to me, but he was furious that they had even been brought back to the country while they were still infected,” Rogers said.
At Monday’s media event, officials said they want those infected to receive care and treatment. But they thought the plan to bring them to Anniston was ill-conceived.
“We are all patriotic Americans,” Rogers said. “We want these individuals who are contaminated with this virus to be treated like we would want to be treated. And that’s not to be brought to a facility that’s not prepared to take care of them.”
Marsh said it was quick action by all levels of government that made the difference.
“There’s no doubt in my mind had this group not gotten together and gotten attention, this would be happening…these people would be coming,” Marsh said. “It’s going to be important to continue to communicate.”