HARRISVILLE — Fourteen Americans evacuated back to the United States from a cruise ship in Japan that had been quarantined due to the coronavirus scare have a Harrisville company to thank, at least in part.
The 14, among a contingent of more than 300 Americans on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, tested positive for the coronavirus disease. In deciding to let them come back to the United States with the larger group last Sunday, U.S. officials transported them in a containment box made by Harrisville-based HHI Corp. The containerized bio-containment system, or CBCS, as it’s known, was manufactured with HHI in partnership with Kansas City, Missouri-based MRIGlobal to transport patients infected with contagious diseases, and HHI officials caught wind of its recent use in media reports.
“We saw the picture and we were like, ‘Hey, that’s us,’” said Cliff Hokanson, executive vice president for HHI, a U.S. military contractor. A report on Monday by Business Insider, an online news organization, showed pictures supplied by evacuees of the CBCS placed aboard the plane that transported the 14.
Regina Hokanson, the HHI president and Cliff Hokanson’s wife, can’t imagine how tough it was for the Americans kept aboard the cruise ship off the coast of Japan for more than 10 days as authorities figured out what to do. Around 3,700 passengers in all were on the boat, including 456 people infected with coronavirus, according to Business Insider.
“It’s incredible to be part of a global solution, when we can contribute to the safe return of people who have been waiting,” Regina Hokanson said. The outbreak of coronavirus, centered in China, has sparked global alarm as health officials try to halt the spread of the disease.
A U.S. State Department press release on Monday alluded to the special handling of the 14 Americans with coronavirus, who hadn’t shown symptoms of the disease.
“These individuals were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols,” the statement said. The 300-plus Americans flown in from Japan were to be placed in quarantine for 14 days at Travis Air Force Base in California or Joint Base San Antonio in Texas.
Just four CBCS containers — initially made in response to the outbreak of ebola in Africa — exist, all made at HHI’s Harrisville facility. They are 44 feet long, look like long, rectangular boxes, and are designed to keep any pathogens inside from escaping. They have space for patients as well as caretakers.
“Ours is robust. It’s deployable. It’s quickly cleaned,” said Cliff Hokanson. HHI also makes stands used for maintenance of military aircraft, among other things.
‘WE BUILT IT’
The first two CBCS containers were made in 2016 in response to a U.S. State Department request for bids for special systems to haul U.S. health care workers home who had traveled to Africa to help address the ebola outbreak there. MRIGlobal was the main contractor and collaborated with HHI to build them, making two more last year.
Even so, the Hokansons can’t say for sure whether the containers were deployed. The reports they were tapped to transport the U.S. patients from Japan are the first indication they’ve seen of their use, at least in transporting sick patients.
“It’s so rewarding for our workers that built it. They’re so excited about it,” Cliff Hokanson said. “We have 140 people and they’re like, ‘We built it.’”
The Hokansons may be biased — their firm makes the CBCS boxes, after all — but they’re proponents of making more of the containers available. If deployed immediately on learning of a dangerous outbreak, they could help quickly contain it. Cliff Hokanson knows of just one other competing containment system, but it’s flimsier in his view, consisting of an exoskeleton surrounded by a thin membrane.
The CBCS received an R&D 100 Award for Innovation in 2016 from R&D Magazine, meant for the “most technologically significant and innovative technologies,” MRIGlobal said in a statement.
Both HHI and MRIGlobal have assisted U.S. military officials with research in chemical and biological weapons. HHI helped design a containment chamber used at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to help in testing the potency of poisons and chemicals.