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US’s first spring flight to Antarctica aims to keep virus out

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By NICK PERRY

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – The first U.S. flight to Antarctica after months of winter darkness left New Zealand on Monday, with crews taking extra precautions to keep the coronavirus out.

Antarctica is the only continent free of viruses, and there is a global effort to ensure that scientists and incoming workers do not bring it with them.

The US Air Force flight departed from the entrance city of Christchurch, carrying 106 passengers and crew, said Tony German, the US Antarctic program representative in New Zealand.

He said the newcomers would start preparing for summer and interacting with skeleton crews who have wintered from the southern hemisphere to Antarctica.

The flight was delayed for three weeks by severe storms, resulting in an extended six-week quarantine for those on board.

German said the crews were first isolated in San Francisco for four days, then spent an additional five weeks in isolation in New Zealand, undergoing several virus tests along the way. When they get to McMurdo station, he said, the facility will be in Code Yellow, which means everyone will be wearing masks for two weeks.

“We are meticulous in making sure nothing happens,” German said.

If the virus were to break out at the station, he said, they have protocols in place to test and isolate anyone who is infected.

Still, flight delays in recent weeks underline how difficult it can be to quickly evacuate people from Antarctica who are suffering from serious medical conditions.

German said it took winter crews at McMurdo, the main US station on the continent, more than a week to weather the storms and clear the runway for the flight to continue.

The Boeing C-17 Globemaster is expected to arrive Monday afternoon, the first American flight to the continent since early May.

Officials say there has been unusual teamwork between the United States, China, Russia and other countries this year to make sure they keep the virus out. All plan for reduced numbers at their stations.

The number of people at McMurdo is expected to peak at 450 this summer, about a third of the usual number.

Some planned research and construction will be delayed. German said the main goals are to keep the facilities running and prepare for next winter, while trying to do some science along the way.

“The show must go on,” he said.

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