Quarantined in China

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 21, 2009

On June 30, Dr. Jewell Mayberry flew to China with 16 other college professors to begin a five-week Fulbright-Hays Seminar to study China’s history and culture. Little did she know what was in store for her during this trip.
Below are excerpts from her travel journal.
Day 1: We’re here, finally! The flight was interminable, and when the plane arrived, we still had to wait for almost two hours because a passenger (in my section) had a fever. The people in hazmat suits finally whisked him away to who-knows-where in an ambulance. All of the people sitting in that section had to fill out a form stating where we were staying while in Beijing, just in case he actually has the H1N1 virus (commonly referred to as the swine flu). Can’t wait until tomorrow to see more of Beijing.
Day 2: One of the worst days of my life. It started out so great ó lectures on Chinese history and economy at Peking University, meeting with the editors of China Daily newspaper, and a welcome by the Education Ministry. Then when we got back to the hotel, a hazmat team and police were waiting to take Amy, Patrick and me into quarantine because the guy from the plane tested positive for H1N1. They gave us masks to wear and a few minutes to get our luggage, then put us in the back of an ambulance for an hour’s drive through dark Beijing. When we arrived at the quarantine hotel, dozens of people were milling about, all dressed in full medical protection garb: mask, gown, cap, gloves. A team came over and immediately checked my temperature, swabbed my throat and took my passport.
No one seems to speak English, so I’m not sure what’s going on. They gave me a room key and pointed down the hall, so I guess this is my room. There’s no air conditioning, and it’s almost unbearable. The lights keep flickering on and off, and the room is really dirty, especially the floor ó my feet keep sticking to it. How long will we have to stay here? How do we get food? What happens if one of us gets the flu? This is a nightmare.
Day 3: I walked down the hall to the lobby this morning and found a bulletin board with notes from former “guests.” One of them was especially useful since it provides a lot of the information we couldn’t get from any of the staff. Here’s part of it:
Things You Should Know When You Arrive
1. Welcome … it is going to be OK!
2. Acceptance is the first step ó you will be here 7 days.
3. No one here is sick ó if they were they would be taken immediately to the hospital.
4. Your temperature will be taken around 9 and 4 every day. A normal temperature is between 36 and 37.5 C.
5. You must wear your mask every time you leave your room.
6. Food is served 3 times daily. You must take it back to your room to eat.
7. The hotel staff is quarantined here as well. They have been here since May and cannot leave, so please be nice to them. It is not their fault!
8. Sorry, your Embassy cannot help you. China’s land ó China’s law.
9. Try not to dwell on what you have missed ó plan for when you get out!!
We got an e-mail tonight from our organization in New York that our tests were negative but that we’re all still here for 7 days. No one here told us anything. It doesn’t make sense. We’re absolutely miserable because the air conditioners are off to prevent the spread of germs (even though this flu cannot be spread through the air!), and the thermometer on my keychain read 105 degrees tonight. I started taking aspirin before our twice-daily temperature checks and put cold water bottles under my arms (they take temperatures under the arm here) so that the heat in the hotel doesn’t cause me to have an elevated temperature.
Twice Amy has forgotten and put the thermometer in her mouth for a second ó oh, the look on her face when she realizes where those thermometers have been. The medical staff doesn’t speak English, but they always give us the thumbs up after they check our temperatures, so I guess that’s good.
Our hotel looks similar to a Motel 6 on the surface, but there are some striking differences. There’s a security gate with guards in front, a metal fence perimeter set up all around the hotel, and armed police at every corner of the hotel. The staff seems to be trying hard to run a hotel, but it’s not a hotel; it’s a prison for those with what we call “the disease of close proximity.”
We also talked to our group today and were told that the plan is for us to meet them on Tuesday (our last day, I hope) at the train station to go to Xi’an. When we were first quarantined, they told us that they would make sure we had the opportunity to see the major sights in Beijing before we left, but it looks like that’s changed now. This doesn’t seem worth it ó I just want to go home.
Day 4: As we fall into a routine, I’m glad I have a room with a view of the front entrance so I can watch all the activity as one ambulance after another arrives with lights flashing, delivering other “potential carriers” to quarantine camp. If it looks like the person arriving is western, Amy and I usually go down, see if they speak English, and try to help orient them since we know how isolated and confused we felt on arrival.
I talked with a large group of Australians in the lobby today. They have such a good attitude and don’t seem to mind being here nearly as much as I do. They were joking about having an afternoon regatta in the koi pond in the courtyard and a “masked ball” this evening. I wish I had a better attitude, but our group visited the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven today, and I wish I were there.
I haven’t had anything to eat but rice and water now for four days. I just can’t bring myself to eat the hot, heavy food with unidentifiable meat in it that sits out for hours in the “You Take Out” room. My body needs protein and craves the jar of peanut butter that I left at home because I thought it was too heavy for my suitcase.
Day 5: We finally ventured outside to the perimeter gate today to get some (hot) fresh air. Some people passing on the street stopped to take pictures of us, the foreigners who might be spreading the H1N1 virus into their country. Some Australians also walked by and talked (shouted, actually, since we were far away) with us for a while. They said they’d heard on the news that the quarantine policy was costing the Chinese government too much and that they were going to start charging the people in quarantine for their facilities. I couldn’t believe it ó they want people to pay to be locked up during their vacation or business trip? This just gets weirder every day.
Day 6: The Australians were released today. Even though they acted like they were having a good time while they were here, several of them started crying when they were given their “get out of quarantine” papers. In the group was a pair of sisters, one from the U.S. and one from Australia. They had decided to spend their vacation together in China and paid about $10,000 for a really nice tour package. Then one of them was placed in quarantine, and her sister joined her so they could be together. They leave tomorrow to go back to their respective countries, and since they didn’t have travel insurance, the money for their trip is gone. There are lots of stories like theirs.
Day 7: Freedom today, as long as I pass my temperature checks. We get out exactly 7 days, 0 hours from the time the passenger was removed from our plane, so 3:00. I’m trying to make sense of what happened here before I leave so that I can move past my fear, anger, and frustration. I’ve read many accounts of quarantine on the Internet, and most of them share my feeling of incredulity at the loss of personal freedom and the inability of translating that feeling to those who have not shared the experience. To date, more than 1,500 Americans have been quarantined in China.
Apparently, China has the best of intentions. After so many deaths because of the poor response to the SARS epidemic, the country wants to prevent a repeat of that incident. After all, China has a population of about 1.3 billion people and an under-developed health care infrastructure, so prevention of the disease entering the country is paramount. However, the random nature of quarantine continues to confound me and many others. The U.S. State Department’s Travel Alert on June 19 states that “although the overall percentage of Americans being quarantined remains low, the seemingly random nature of the selection process makes it almost impossible to predict when a traveler may be placed in quarantine.”
I just received my release papers. I’m told that I must have them with me at all times while traveling in China and when I leave the country. Before I put them in the pouch with my passport, I read the English translation: “We are pleased to inform you that there was no related clinical symptom found during your 7 days’ quarantine. The medical observation for you ends on July 7, by the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Infectious Disease Prevention and Control. We appreciate for your understanding and cooperation.”
Epilogue: After our release from quarantine, we were allowed a day in Beijing to visit as many sights as we could, including the Great Wall. We then reunited with our group and visited four other cities during the next month. As we prepared to fly to Hong Kong, we were informed that Hong Kong was still quarantining passengers with fevers and those sitting close to them. Rather than take this risk, Amy, Patrick and I decided to end our trip in Shanghai and return to the United States a week early.
When I’ve talked with people since I’ve been home, the first question I’m asked is, “How was quarantine?” and I’ve tried to describe it above. The second question I’m usually asked is, “Would you ever go back to China?” The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”
I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to China and I’d do it again without hesitation ó after I made sure there wasn’t a State Department Travel Alert in effect.