What Americans experienced as Covid-19 spread in Wuhan

What Americans experienced as Covid-19 spread in Wuhan



At first it was a rumor, a cough, a canceled school luncheon.

Since emerging in late December, the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, has killed more than 1,000 people and infected tens of thousands more across the world. 

For Americans living in or visiting Wuhan, the virus has brought a mix of fear, panic and boredom. They’ve had to battle a lack of information, government quarantines and cold, long flights. Some have celebrated birthdays and going-away parties. Others have been sick or stranded.

Over the course of six weeks since the virus emerged, four Americans detail a new reality in Wuhan, the journey back to the U.S. and life in quarantine on a military base. 

Sunday, Jan. 5: Reports of a virus

John McGory, a teacher in Wuhan originally from Youngstown, Ohio, first hears about a virus from his brother in Columbus. The unknown virus was reported Dec. 31 and has already sickened dozens. He is making plans to travel to Cambodia before returning to Ohio in March after six years living in China. 

Tuesday, Jan. 7: Hospital visit

Diana Adama, an American researcher who has lived in China for about 14 years and moved to Wuhan in September, goes to the hospital with a fever. Officials immediately swab her mouth and take blood work before Adama pays and registers, which she finds unusual. The doctors tell her that she has bronchitis. She stays in the hospital for about a week.

Thursday, Jan. 9: First person dies

A man in China dies from a new strain of coronavirus. Officials report the death days later.

Sunday, Jan. 19: Arriving in Wuhan

Ilona and Claude Blouin, a couple from Harwinton, Connecticut, arrive in Wuhan to visit their son who teaches math at a college in the city.  

Claude and Ilona visit a national park with their son, Craig, on Jan. 22, 2020, before the lockdown began in Wuhan, China.

Claude and Ilona visit a national park with their son, Craig, on Jan. 22, 2020, before the lockdown began in Wuhan, China.

Claude Blouin

Monday, Jan. 20: Metro scare

McGory was returning from his going-away party when a man in black jumps on the metro with a bullhorn and tells passengers to leave the train immediately. “We all leave the car quickly, without a word. People on the platform exchange nervous glances, wondering if coronavirus had been detected on the train,” McGory writes on his blog. Meanwhile, China reports a third death and confirms a case of human-to-human transmission

Wednesday, Jan. 22: Luncheon canceled

McGory’s school, Jianghan University, cancels its New Years’ holiday luncheon for teachers. “They instead bring us packages of frozen dumplings, rice balls, hand disinfectant, face masks and a holiday banner,” McGory writes. More than 550 people are infected and 17 people have died.

Thursday, Jan. 23: Wuhan locks down

McGory wakes up to find that he is under quarantine. He goes to the Walmart at Wanda Mall with a friend. The store is crowded but calm. Fresh vegetables sell out quickly. The rest of the mall is empty.

The Wuhan local government cancels all flights and trains from the city and closes all public transportation – bus, subway, ferry and long-distance bus service.

McGory sees rumors on social media that the government plans to drop disinfectant from airplanes across the city. They prove false.

The shelves were emptied of fresh produce in Wuhan, China on Jan. 23, 2020.

The shelves were emptied of fresh produce in Wuhan, China on Jan. 23, 2020.

Claude Blouin

Meanwhile, the Blouins hunker down in their son’s apartment. “We were only supposed to be (in Wuhan) about 10 days,” Ilona says. “Halfway through our vacation, they locked down the city. We were very concerned about how we were going to be able to get home.” The Blouins contact the U.S. embassy and request seats on the first evacuation flight out of the city.

Adama has no idea that the city has been locked down.

Friday, Jan. 24: Lockdown grows

It’s Lunar New Year’s Eve, but McGory doesn’t celebrate. He stays inside. “Nobody was going anywhere,” he says. Chinese authorities expand the travel lockdown, affecting more than 35 million people.

Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China turns city streets to near ghost town

The coronavirus outbreak has left Wuhan, China nearly empty.


Saturday, Jan. 25: Lunar New Year

Adama dons a face mask and ear muffs and walks a couple miles to a nearby hospital, documenting her journey in a series of videos. “There are no cars, no buses, no transport, no nothing,” Adama says. “We have no information. Nobody tells us anything.”

She finally catches a taxi to the hospital, which she says is “not very busy at all.” Hospital employees wear full hazmat suits. Adama speaks with the hospital director and plans to return the following day to volunteer. She later stocks up on groceries.

From inside his apartment, McGory hears the annual Lunar New Year fireworks. “I was surprised to even hear the fireworks going off in the city,” he says. “I was going to go out to dinner with some of the teachers, but that got canceled.”

Sunday, Jan. 26: Learning of lockdown

Adama learns about the Wuhan lockdown on Twitter. She is unable to go back to the hospital to volunteer.

American teacher documents life in Wuhan, center of coronavirus

American Diana Adama documented what life in Wuhan, China, is like amidst the coronavirus outbreak.


Monday, Jan. 27: US Embassy calls

McGory’s university cancels spring semester. Walmart greeters begin taking shoppers’ temperatures before allowing them to enter. “I passed today’s test but it sent a wave of panic over me,” McGory writes on his blog. Few people walk the usually crowded streets and malls.

The U.S. Embassy calls McGory to offer him a seat on an evacuation flight out of Wuhan, but McGory doesn’t have his passport because he applied for a two-week extension and cannot accept the seat.

The road outside the Jianghan University campus on Jan. 27, 2020.

The road outside the Jianghan University campus on Jan. 27, 2020.

Courtesy of John McGory

Wednesday, Jan. 29: Fears creeps in

To pass the time, McGory goes out for walks, watches college basketball highlights, and cooks. He shares videos of his deserted university campus. “People are afraid,” McGory says. “People don’t know what’s going to happen. You get a little sore throat – is that the beginning of the end? It’s a battle inside your own head.”

Adama, who has a background in emergency management, creates a website called the Wuhan Warriors Network to streamline communications among foreigners. “We’re kind of paralyzed. We’re not getting information from the government, school, nothing,” Adama says. “We’re all cooped up here knowing nothing. We are sitting here on ground zero not knowing what to do or who to believe.”

A local businessman brings Adama water, eggs, fruit, noodles and oats to her apartment door since she’s afraid of going outside. She tears up. “As much as I can’t understand humans, sometimes they are wonderful creatures,” she says.

Thursday, Jan. 30: Disinfectant 

“Everybody’s tense,” Adama says. She organizes several social media chat groups where she continues to combat trolls and fake news. One user shares a story alleging that millions of people have died from the virus. Another says the virus can be cured with one bowl of boiled garlic water.

“This is like a movie and a nightmare – like someone’s taken one of these scripts and is using it to cause chaos,” Adama says. “You don’t know who to believe.”

Officials spray disinfectant on Adama’s apartment complex.

Friday, Jan. 31: A gurney in the street

Friends, family and reporters reach out to McGory. He hosts a rooftop gathering with two fellow teachers. They drink wine and eat snacks. “The pressure on the people here continues to grow. No shops, restaurants, or offices are open. More comments on WeChat refer to financial concerns,” McGory writes on his blog.

A day after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, Adama questions why it took so long. “They screwed up maybe,” she says. “We were on lockdown and so many cities were on lockdown. Why didn’t they do that?”

She records a video of four individuals wheeling a gurney through the deserted streets below her apartment and into a nearby apartment building.

Saturday, Feb. 1: Venturing out

John McGory holds passport from the Wuhan Police, Feb 1, 2020.

John McGory holds passport from the Wuhan Police, Feb 1, 2020.

John McGory

McGory gets news from the U.S. Embassy that he’s been confirmed on a flight out of Wuhan. He coordinates with his university to obtain his passport from the police for about $25.

Trucks spraying disinfectant drive along the streets of Adama’s apartment complex. Once the spraying has finished, Adama puts on a face mask and goggles and goes outside her apartment. She doesn’t have gloves but tries not to touch anything.

Adama buys vitamin C and cough drops at a nearby medicine shop, where she speaks with a small group gathered outside, including some officials operating the disinfectant vehicles. She heads to the grocery store, where she finds plenty of rice and masks. 

Adama sees four men playing basketball on a court near her apartment. “I haven’t seen people in days, so it’s nice to see people,” she says.

‘I need to know what’s going on’: American teacher explores Wuhan amid coronavirus outbreak

Dr. Diana Adama documents her days inside Wuhan, China to help people understand the city in the center of the coronavirus outbreak.


Sunday, Feb. 2: Birthday under lockdown

McGory’s flight out of Wuhan is canceled for at least 36 hours.

Adama celebrates her birthday under lockdown. “What a way to spend it,” she says. “I have a birthday wish for the world … containment.” She does a nebulizer treatment for her lungs and captures video of Chinese officials spraying more disinfectant.

Rooftop shot with Liz Jones, Jacob Dominguez and John McGory, right, Feb 3, 2020.

Rooftop shot with Liz Jones, Jacob Dominguez and John McGory, right, Feb 3, 2020.

John McGory

Tuesday, Feb. 4: Traveling to airport

McGory writes on his blog that people are leaving frantic messages on WeChat. “Real information remains scarce while rumors explode,” McGory writes.

He gets a ride to the airport, about 40 miles away, from a friend’s son. There was one checkpoint. “We showed (the officer) our passports, and he didn’t want to touch them,” McGory says.

The Blouins, meanwhile, catch a ride to the airport with their son’s friend, who receives special permission to drive them. They arrive at the airport around 5 p.m., where officials take their temperatures. They end up waiting about 15 hours at the airport.

About 350 passengers were divided between two planes based on the first letter of their last name, McGory says. “There were all sorts of crazy things going on. There were several people on our plane who had families on the other plane.” 

"This is where it started getting scary," Claude Blouin said.

“This is where it started getting scary,” Claude Blouin said.

Claude Blouin

The Blouins check in for their flight out of Wuhan, China on Feb. 4, 2020.

The Blouins check in for their flight out of Wuhan, China on Feb. 4, 2020.

Claude Blouin

Wednesday, Feb. 5: Cargo plane

Officials take the passengers’ temperatures again before they board the cargo planes. The crew wears hazmat suits. Passengers wear face masks. The flights finally depart around 5 a.m., and officials take people’s temperatures three times throughout the 11-hour journey. 

“There’s no windows, no floors. We were a little shocked. Everybody kind of behaved, and we did, too. We did OK. We didn’t talk to anybody too much,” Ilona said.

Scene at Wuhan Tiande International Airport on Feb. 5, 2020.

Scene at Wuhan Tiande International Airport on Feb. 5, 2020.

John McGory

The Blouins’ flight touches down at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, where nearly 180 passengers begin two weeks of quarantine. “We came off the plane very early and it was dark, and the Americans were just saying welcome home. We walked into the hangar, and they gave us a family dinner,” Claude said.

McGory’s flight also touches down at Travis, but he’s unsure where he is. His plane sits on the tarmac for about an hour and a half before medical personnel informs the 170 passengers that they’re headed to San Diego.

About 37 hours after he left his apartment in Wuhan, McGory arrives at Miramar Marine Base – a few minutes from where his sister lives.

“There wasn’t much food. We had a sandwich when we got on the plane, and they gave us another one. We went probably 14 hours without food. The toilets got backed up. It was a cargo plane. It was on the cold side. But everyone was doing their best. You had to fight through it,” McGory says.

Several people from McGory’s flight are hospitalized in the afternoon.

Meanwhile in Wuhan, a 60-year-old U.S. citizen diagnosed with the coronavirus dies in what appears to be the first American fatality from the global virus outbreak.

Passengers fly from Wuhan, China to California on Feb. 5, 2020.

Passengers fly from Wuhan, China to California on Feb. 5, 2020.

Courtesy of John McGory

Thursday, Feb. 6: Quarantine

The Blouins adjust to life in quarantine at Travis Air Force Base. “It’s very nice rooms. They have a bath, shower, bed. There’s a gate around the perimeter of the hotel. It’s all fenced in, and there’s spotlights at night,” Ilona says.

At Miramar Marine Base, McGory shares a photo of 12 sets of luggage sitting in the parking lot. “Several people have been removed due to elevated temperatures. I just made it through the morning check,” McGory says.

In Wuhan, Adama hears an announcement being broadcast from a loudspeaker on the back of a truck driving through the city. She can’t make out the message. She sees that someone has barricaded the gate of her apartment complex. “I think … they don’t want people jumping over the gate there,” Adama says in a video. “They want us to stay here.”

Friday, Feb. 7: Whistleblower dies

In the U.S., about 65 new passengers arrive at Miramar Marine Base where McGory is staying, causing concern among people in quarantine that their stays would be lengthened. “Every day’s something new,” McGory says. “They brought in some more people … from Wuhan. People were kind of concerned.”

McGory goes to pick up a pre-made meal for dinner during the designated time slot but finds that all the meals have been taken.

Meanwhile, a Chinese whistleblower doctor, Li Wenliang, who was punished for trying to warn about the coronavirus, dies of the coronavirus, triggering a national backlash over freedom of speech and censorship.

Saturday, Feb. 8: Quarantine improves

In San Diego, McGory wakes up around 3 a.m. and writes for several hours. Officials take his temperature throughout the day. “It’s sort of like prison,” he says.

The Blouins’ situation improves at Travis Air Force Base. “Today, they changed out the caterer, and we got our medicine. So today was a better day,” Ilona says.

The Blouins chat with their son every day. “He’s staying in his apartment. He has coworkers. The school is going to start online classes Monday,” Ilona says. “He’s just hunkering down. He could have chosen to come home, too, but he’s been there six years and that’s his home. It was very hard for me, but we feel he’s safe in his apartment.”

In Wuhan, Adama hears that two bloggers have gone missing. “This is crazy here,” she says.

Monday, Feb. 10: Anger at the CDC

 McGory and others at Miramar Marine Base are frustrated with the CDC after an infected person was allowed into the quarantined marine base. UC San Diego Health released four patients from isolation Sunday night after they tested negative for the virus. Further testing later revealed that one patient was actually positive for teh virus.  “People are still upset with the news about the mistake made by the CDC,” McGory says.

And there’s nine more days to go: McGory and the Blouins are expected to remain in quarantine until Wednesday, Feb. 19.

Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck.

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