Donna Lebens, a North Memorial Hospital paramedic and lifelong Shakopee resident, recently returned from San Diego after providing medical support at a coronavirus quarantine base.
Lebens was one of 17 Minnesota responders stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, where 232 evacuees from Wuhan, China, were quarantined for 14 days as Lebens and other health care professionals monitored them.
Lebens is a member of the National Disaster Medical System’s assistance team and has responded to natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Harvey.
But this mission, she said, was unlike any other national disaster trip she’s been on.
“There were a lot of unknowns when we initially got there,” Lebens said.
When Lebens is called to the scene of a national disaster, she normally deals with people who have lost everything. She’s used to the kind of triage care most people picture when they think of large-scale disasters.
“No shoes on, with cuts all over, and they literally don’t have anything left,” she said. “With this, it was a different kind of fear. I think it was hard for a lot of people who had families (in China) they had to leave behind.”
The coronavirus outbreak warranted a response from the team when the U.S. government filled two planes with evacuees from China, the epicenter of the outbreak. So far the U.S. has confirmed 15 cases, according to The New York Times, and the outbreak has infected more than 75,000 people in Asia.
Headlines across the world show a global effort to keep the virus at bay, and China finds itself at a standstill as millions of people try to avoid contracting the disease.
At the U.S. quarantine base, most evacuees were calm, Lebens said. Many were just trying to find things to do.
Children played outside at a large playground, colored the ground with chalk and fiddled with donated toys. Lebens said the language barrier posed a challenge, as many of the evacuees didn’t speak English. On Valentine’s Day, the team packed and decorated brown-bag gifts full of Chinese candy.
“It’s always remarkable to be part of people’s care, even if that just means managing their fear,” Lebens said.
Lebens said two of the Miramar evacuees tested positive for the disease last week, but she didn't come into contact with them. Even if she did, she said, there’s no way she could have contracted the disease.
“We were covered from head to toe."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deployed a total 160 personnel — including physicians, nurses, paramedics, IT specialists, public affairs specialist, and experienced command and control staff — to Miramar MCAS, according to a news release. A total of 682 department personnel deployed to five military bases across the country to house evacuees.
For the next two weeks, Lebens and her colleagues will undergo daily monitoring to ensure she isn’t showing symptoms of the coronavirus. As she spoke at Caribou Coffee in Shakopee, her phone vibrated.
“Are you showing signs of a cough?” the text message asked.