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Trapped in Wuhan: How an N.J. woman made it home from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic
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Trapped in Wuhan: How an N.J. woman made it home from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic

Updated 6:49 AM; Today 6:30 AM

By Spencer Kent | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The streets of Wuhan were a ghost town.

A pall had fallen over the city, a tense silence that felt apocalyptic.

Ningxi Xu jogged through her hometown in late January, sweating out the angst and boredom as she remained locked down in a metropolis under quarantine. The city of 11 million in central China typically bustles like midtown Manhattan.

But it was empty.

There were no cars. No people. All the shops and restaurants were closed.

Starving animals prowled the streets, desperately following the few residents who dared to leave their homes.

Coronavirus was no longer a whispered rumor. It had trapped millions of people in place as public transportation was shut down, flights were halted, and soon, roads would be closed and barricaded.

"It was eerie because the streets were almost completely empty,” said Xu, a Jersey City resident. “We live on a usually pretty busy street, and it was just weird to see.”

Xu, 30, had traveled to China in mid-January to visit her family and celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Three days after she arrived in Wuhan — the epicenter of a mysterious outbreak turned global pandemic — the Chinese government ordered it locked down. Xu would be trapped in a city under siege by the disease now known as COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus that had only just been identified by health experts.

No one could have predicted what would emerge — the scale of the outbreak, the thousands of infections and deaths and the global spread that would reach every continent but Antarctica. That spread would cause governments to scramble, stock markets to plummet and New Jersey and the United States to declare a state of emergency.

Xu had no idea what she had encountered. Not fully. Not yet.

It was only after discovering that the quarantine would last far longer than mere days or even weeks that panic set in.

“I could see that, at some point, she got a little bit upset …" said Szymon Borak, Xu’s boyfriend and a banking risk manager. “‘OK.’ I just simply said, ‘OK.’ ... I knew that she was under tremendous pressure.”

Xu would spend three weeks locked down in Wuhan. Jump on a last-chance flight out of China organized by the U.S. State Department, secured with the help of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez. Endure a 16-hour flight across the Pacific surrounded by fellow Americans suspected of having COVID-19 and isolated in plastic. Then spend another 14 days in quarantine on a military base in San Diego hoping she did not have the virus. And finally, she would make the cross-country trip home to New Jersey, where she returned Feb. 19 somehow free of COVID-19.

Since then, the Garden State has recorded at least 69 cases of COVID-19 and witnessed two deaths. Overall, the world has recorded more than 142,000 infections and nearly 5,400 fatalities, with 2,600 cases and 56 deaths occurring in the United States.

The lessons of Wuhan may just apply here in the U.S. if the outbreak continues to escalate. The coronavirus is still spreading, upending daily life for nearly every American. There is no vaccine or treatment. COVID-19 has a fatality rate of 3.4%, far higher than the 0.1% of sufferers who die of the flu, according to U.S. health officials.

Xu, a data engineer for an asset management firm, had little inkling what she was facing that first night in Wuhan. She would learn quickly.

“Three days later, we went into the lockdown,” she said.

Vague warnings

The first warning came Jan. 19, during a layover in Tokyo.

A mysterious, new virus had emerged in Wuhan, Xu’s parents told her, and people were getting scared.

They even mentioned she might want to turn back and fly home to the United States.

"Looking back now, I think I was just really naive,” she said. “I just completely disregarded the severity.”

Xu hadn't seen the initial reports circulating at the time. Borak remembered a few vague headlines, but they didn't sound overly concerning. And Xu was almost there, making her annual trip home for the holiday as she had for the past 12 years.

Then came another warning.

Xu met a stranger, a middle-aged woman from Rhode Island, on the flight from Tokyo to China. The woman told Xu about the still-unnamed virus. And she told her to be careful once they landed.

When they did touch down in Wuhan, Xu noticed surgical masks were everywhere.

People wore them inside the airport. Her father even wore one when he picked her up. He didn’t take it off until they got to her parents’ condo.

"I even laughed at him and said, 'Oh, why are you wearing a mask? Come on. It's silly,'" said Xu, who requested that her parents not be identified.

Her dad told her not to handle money, to watch what she touched and had her to drink a special Chinese herbal cocktail -- a sort of bitter tea -- every day.

Still, "it didn't sound too serious,” said Xu, who caught up with her aunts, uncles and cousins, shopped and went out to eat.

But the coronavirus was spreading like wildfire in Wuhan and throughout Hubei province, aided by a government concealing information from the public.

News was limited after Chinese officials detained, and in some cases, arrested medical workers and journalists who warned of the outbreak, according to reports.

Rumors of mass infection and death had begun to circulate among residents, filling the void. However, Xu had not seen any sick people or bodies.

About 3 a.m. on the third day of her visit, everything changed.

Xu lay in bed in her parents' guest room, wide awake thanks to jet lag, when the order to quarantine the city came down.

"I was feeling a little disoriented and just couldn't believe what I was seeing,” Xu said. “And it was in the middle of the night, so when my dad woke up a few hours later, I told him and he was like, 'Oh, wow.'

"He couldn't believe it."

A friend in the U.S. told her to get out immediately, suggesting she have her parents take her to Shanghai to get a flight while the roads were still open.

"Unfortunately, we didn't take any action," Xu said. “We optimistically thought it would be over in maybe a week or two.”

The outbreak and the lockdown persist to this day.

One chance to leave

Panic set in when an email from All Nippon Airways said all flights were canceled until March.

"It was pretty desperate because I didn't think ... there will be another way out," Xu said. "So I think it was just like a sense of despair. I didn't know what to do."

She was trapped.

Public transportation had shut down. The roads leading out of the area were closed. People could still leave their homes, go shopping and run errands. But that would soon change, as the Chinese government eventually restricted Wuhan residents' movements.

Xu was biding her time, reading the news and searching for a way out of China.

“This is not a usual panic,” said Borak, describing Xu grow increasingly anxious.

She ran to work off the nervous energy. In her workout clothes and wearing earbuds, she jogged through a city that normally had clogged sidewalks, jammed roads and stores and restaurants filled with people.

But now it was empty.

Xu jogged past a lake, where a group of cats searched for food.

“Street animals were now starving since they couldn't get food from restaurants,” she said.

She added, "My mom saw a dog one day that followed her for a while, probably looking for food. It was terrible."

A call to the U.S. Embassy amounted to nothing. When it didn't respond, real fear set in. Xu felt alone.

All the while, people in Wuhan continued to die. Hubei province, which includes Wuhan, has recorded the large majority of mainland China’s 80,800 cases and 3,200 deaths.

No one in Xu’s family has been infected. But everyone knew someone impacted — "two-degrees of separation," as Xu put it.

She only grew more anxious when she learned the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan was being evacuated.

"She was under tremendous pressure," said Borak, feeling helpless from 7,000 miles away.

Finally, he contacted Menendez's office out of desperation and explained the situation.

"I think they contacted the State Department for me,” Xu said. “I'm not sure if I would have been able to get on that flight (out) if they hadn't reached out for me.”

Xu received word from the U.S. Embassy on Feb. 2 that she had secured a flight. In a statement through a spokesman, Menendez said he was stunned when he realized the abandonment that Xu — and several other New Jersey residents — faced.

“She had tried several times to reach officials at the American embassy, and was understandably distressed when no one responded,” Menendez said.

“There is no excuse for leaving American citizens in need in the lurch, but that’s what was happening,” he said.

The only information Xu was given was a time to be at the airport.

To get there, they would have to pass through barricades and police checkpoints. The roads were otherwise deserted.

She arrived at the airport in Wuhan at 4:45 p.m., when she found she was part of a group of about 200 passengers.

It was "pretty disorganized, and we didn't know where (we) were going, even when we were at the airport," Xu said.

She didn’t board until 8 a.m. the following morning.

The flight

The medical workers wore respirators.

Every passenger on the 16-hour flight from Wuhan wore a surgical mask.

A baby screamed somewhere. Then someone coughed, and the cargo plane went silent.

“I was scared at the airport before we finally took off ... and on the flight since it was a confined area,” Xu said.

They were headed to a military base in San Diego, where she and the other evacuees would be placed under quarantine for 14 days.

There were almost no windows in the plane. There were just rows of seats bolted to the metal floor inside a massive fuselage.

Thick, clear plastic hung from the ceiling. More of it was wrapped around the ladder leading to the upper deck.

Before takeoff, everyone waited to be checked in and examined by health officials who wore white coverall gowns, surgical masks, eye shields and blue surgical gloves that were secured with duct tape around their wrists.

Xu took her seat as her fellow evacuees slowly filed by.

She tried her best to sleep. But then officials on the plane called her number, something every passenger had been assigned on a wristband handed out before they took off.

Her temperature had been slightly elevated when she boarded, and they needed to monitor her.

“They said it was on the higher end, but still within normal range, and they just wanted to make sure," Xu said.

She had made it this far, to the plane and on her way out of China. Against the odds, she was not infected.

But was anyone else on the plane infected?

She sat in fear as coughs broke the silence.

Welcome to San Diego

Fences surrounded the compound, rising about five feet high.

The evacuees were welcomed to San Diego by a military band, and then they were shown to their quarters.

But their arrival did not feel like a homecoming, not with two weeks of quarantine ahead of them.

"They put up fences and tents, like medical tents, outside just in case you felt sick in the middle of the night," Xu said.

There wasn't much socializing. Everyone largely kept to themselves.

The only real interactions came in the dining area, where only sparse meals — a single box with chicken or pork chops and some vegetables — were provided.

The group complained about the food. It soon improved in quality and quantity.

Xu spent the idle hours reading, keeping up with the news in Wuhan, checking on her parents and journaling on her phone. She wrote about her experiences and the whirlwind she had just experienced.

"I was just counting down the days," said Xu, who is not yet ready to share her journal entries.

She’s still in disbelief. And she’s never felt more compassion for people living under authoritarian rule.

Despite having studied international affairs at George Washington University, she said, “I never really felt it on a visceral level.”

"I finally feel like I understand that," Xu said.

Approaching her final day in quarantine — after the medical exams and temperature checks, the boxed meals and the lonely sleeping quarters — she was excited to get out of there.

Xu just wanted to return home and see Borak and her two cats — Pumpkin and Pecan.

She told her boyfriend she’d be arriving at Newark airport around midnight on Feb. 19, but he didn’t need to pick her up. She planned to take an Uber home.

But there he was. Xu caught a glimpse of Borak standing in the terminal, waiting for her as she lugged her bag.

They embraced and kissed, holding each other.

She was finally home.

Nearly two months later, life is beginning to return to normal, even as the pandemic escalates in New Jersey, the United States and throughout the globe.

In retrospect, Xu said the warning signs were glaring. She wonders how she missed them — the woman on the plane, the masks all around, her parents’ hesitant voices wondering if she should turn around.

But there were no official warnings. The Chinese government had said little to nothing. Until lockdown, there was no hint as to the seriousness of the situation. There weren't even those now-ubiquitous reminders in the U.S. to wash your hands.

All the people of Wuhan had were rumors and innuendo, the grapevine of family and friends and neighbors sharing what little information existed.

Xu still worries about them, even as her parents remain healthy in the quarantined city.

And she still wonders about the woman from Rhode Island who had given her that initial warning.

Xu doesn't know if she escaped. She doesn't know if she's OK.

“I hope she got out,” Xu said.


https://www.nj.com/coronavirus/2020/03 ... coronavirus-pandemic.html

Posted on: 3/15 14:17
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