Feb. 21 (UPI) -- State Department officials Friday cautioned that American citizens trapped in areas impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak in the future should not rely on government-sponsored evacuation flights to get them home.
The comments were made by Ian Brownlee, acting assistant secretary at Bureau of Consular Affairs, during a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefing with reporters. They came less than 24 hours after his department advised U.S. citizens to "reconsider" traveling on cruise ships to or within Asia for the time being, until the virus has been contained.
The CDC and State Department currently have travel advisories in effect for all of China, and has cautioned people planning travel to Japan and Hong Kong.
The flights "do not reflect standard practice" at the State Department "and should not be relied upon" in the future, Brownlee said.
The CDC said Friday there are a total of 34 cases of COVID-19 in the United States, 21 of which are repatriated individuals and 13 among people who have recently been in China.
Earlier on Friday, the Washington Post reported that 14 Americans from the Diamond Princess who tested positive for COVID-19 were on a State Department chartered flight out of Tokyo over objections from CDC officials. The 14 were seated in a separate section of the plane, and were not a danger to themselves or others, officials emphasized Friday.
"This is a dynamic situation and U.S. citizens traveling by ship may be impacted by travel restrictions affecting their itineraries or ability to disembark, or may be subject to quarantine procedures implemented by the local authorities," the department added in a statement.
When asked about the reports during Friday's press briefing, CDC and State Department didn't deny them, but said the decision to transport the passengers was made "on the tarmac" and that the positive test results were received as they were boarding the planes.
The State Department flew 329 passengers who had been on the Diamond Princess on two separate charter flights on Monday.
"There will be disagreements among officials," Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, acknowledged during the press conference. "However, we will continue to act as one, united government" in the response to COVID-19, she added.
The Diamond Princess has reported 634 cases of COVID-19. Among them are 18 U.S. citizens included on the State Department flights who are currently receiving care at hospitals near the military bases where non-infected Americans are in quarantine.
In addition, as many as 10 U.S. citizens who have tested positive for the virus are being treated at hospitals in Japan after testing positive for COVID-19 while still aboard the Diamond Princess.
Many of the infected passengers are over 60 old, and older people have generally had a poorer prognosis, Messionnier noted.
Messonnier also said Friday the CDC has changed its accounting procedures for confirmed cases of the virus, now separating out those among Americans repatriated by the State Department. In addition to the cruise ship passengers, the State Department evacuated roughly 600 U.S. citizens trapped in Wuhan after China locked the city down in January.
Most of those 600 people are now out of quarantine and returning home, Messonnier said. However, three tested positive for the virus and are still receiving treatment.
With the new procedures in place, there have been 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Americans with a history of travel to mainland China -- including a new case involving a resident of Humboldt County, Calif., announced late Thursday -- and 21 confirmed cases among evacuees, from both Wuhan and the Diamond Princess.
Messonnier said the new counting method "more accurately reflects" what's going on in the United States in terms of "community spread" of the virus.
"We are not seeing community spread yet," she added. "But we may see, it may even be likely. We don't know at this point."