Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Two Quarantine Experiences: East and West Coast

This post is a side-by-side comparison of Alexander Lee and Michael Heister's travel and quarantine experiences. The two know each other from weekly trivia at Tristan's Cal-Mex in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

Alexander returned solo to the United States, landing in JFK International Airport in New York City on Monday, February 17. Michael returned with his Chinese wife and their daughter to LAX, in Los Angeles, California on February 5.

Why did you return to the United States?

A: The United States government issued a warning that we should depart by commercial means on Feb. 2. Some subsequent messages did not repeat that verbiage, but by February 10, I had purchased a $1,555 round-trip ticket. My family was safe on the 14th floor of a gated community in a section of the city, an island, on which no diagnoses of COVID-19 had been reported. My partner supported my departure and we planned to reunite in the U.S. as soon as possible. I believed that I could be a better advocate for them outside of China's Great Firewall and that, having recently re-watched The Sand Pebbles (1966) with my girlfriend and her son, it is generally a good idea to depart when your government gives that order--no matter how much you dislike the current Administration or its draconian policies. I was unclear about the level of accurate reporting inside China or the rate at which the disease was going to continue to spread when I bought my ticket on February 10. By my date of departure, it had slowed to a trickle.  Since I left there have been no new reported cases in Guangzhou. 

M: We--American citizen husband, Chinese citizen wife with tourist visa, daughter with American passport--flew out of Guangzhou on February 5, after some hiccups. We'd arrived at the airport in the morning, having booked a cheap one-stop flight through Seoul to McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. We had even received an email from Korean Air that all was well. Literally an hour or less before we got to the counter, the South Korean government had changed its policy, and was not allowing any Chinese citizens to transfer through Seoul without South Korean visas. Our young daughter and I could continue if we chose, but my wife could not. She gallantly offered to stay. I nixed that practically before the words were out of her mouth. She spent a couple of hours on her phone finding the alternative that best suited us. I felt at that moment - emotions running a bit high - like our options were shrinking rapidly, and didn't want to risk any other transfers, especially through airports in mainland China. She booked us a same-day direct flight to LAX. If it was just my wife and me, we'd have toughed it out, but we'd already passed nearly two weeks in our apartment in voluntary let's-avoid-people-and-public-places isolation, and we really felt that if we stayed, we'd be asking a LOT of our six-year-old--especially since we were privileged/blessed with other options. We really felt that if we stayed, we would be asking her to put much of her life on-hold for an indefinite period of time.

When you got off the plane, what happened before you left the airport?

A: I stood in a line to have my temperature taken by an airport employee. When that was complete, we proceeded to immigration and passport control. After passport control, under the supervision of both a major and captain of the uniformed Public Health Service, a row of fold-up tables served as a check-in station with CDC. The workers, in their new khaki CDC vests, appeared to be new employees or even possibly volunteers.

The woman who helped me said, "We are telling people that it is a good idea to quarantine for two weeks." At this point, she was interrupted by a colleague, who said, "You can't tell him it is mandatory. You have to tell him it is optional." I interrupted this worker to say, "I don't want to be part of the spread of an international disease. My friends would never forgive me so I am going to self-quarantine. She did indicate it is optional." The woman helping me then asked for a phone number. I provided my parents' and said, "Please don't call that unless you need to." I was presented with some papers from CDC and the NY Department of Health, mostly in Chinese, that explained what health precautions were recommended (e.g., wash your hands!).

M: We touched down around 6 PM, and had to wait just a few minutes before disembarking. We were greeted at the end of the jetway by CDC personnel who took our temperature and quizzed us about where we'd traveled and how we felt. Our daughter, quite honestly, told the CDC she had trouble breathing through the mask, and didn't like it. We were handed a form suggesting we monitor our temperature for 14 days. We were not placed under any mandatory orders of quarantine or isolation. We experienced a three-hour-plus wait in line at passport control at LAX, as there was an extra processing step there with the CDC as well. At the final window, the customs officer chose to send my wife upstairs for additional processing or whatever benign-sounding bureaucratic term they use. This entailed an additional three-hour wait for our daughter and me downstairs while my wife waited upstairs. Customs interrogated her for just a few minutes about where she was from, what she planned to do in the U.S., and so on. Very friendly. Then the officer asked an assumptive question about my wife being from Wuhan, and she quickly corrected him. He was satisfied with her answer, and she met us downstairs a bit past 1 AM.

What happened after you left the airport?

Isolation and Quarantine Agreement signed on 2/20/2020
A: I went to the AirTrain and took it to Federal Circle, distancing myself from other passengers, but no longer wearing the mask that we had been asked to wear throughout the flight on China Airlines. At Federal Circle, I picked up a reserved rental car from the Budget desk and drove to Upstate New York, stopping along the way in Scranton, PA, to have dinner at a Thai restaurant. I spent two weeks at the same location and, having arrived on February 17th, my parents got a call on February 19th from a very kind RN at the county health department, which is responsible for the address I had given the CDC workers when I gave them the phone number. To this point, nobody had warned me that an initial in-person visit from public health workers would be necessary. They came out on the morning of the 20th with a care package of gloves, surgical masks, Purell, Chlorox wipes, Kleenex, and a very nice quality thermometer. I was told to take my temperature twice per day--once in the morning and once in the evening--then report the readings to them in the morning of each subsequent day of voluntary quarantine. I also recorded these on a sheet provided by them in a folder that had a list of local hospitals with Emergency Rooms. They left me with another paper from the CDC on health precautions.  After the quarantine, I drove to their offices and retrieved a letter from them that certified I had completed my two weeks in quarantine.

M: We rented a car, drove close to an hour, and checked into a motel. The following day, we drove the rest of the way to Las Vegas. We did not wear our masks, but we did keep a reasonable distance from other people.

How was the experience of your quarantine?

A: It was qualitatively different than the January 23 to February 17 period that I had spent mostly home bound, leaving only to sit in the car while my partner bought vegetables and supplies in an open-air market. It was qualitatively different than the two two-week writer's retreats that I did in 1999 and 2009. In fact, it was harrowing. The lack of clarity about when and how my family would be able to join me did not help. The around the clock care and feeding of a wood stove while it snowed, rained, and blew a gale combined with jet-lag and anxiety led to many nights of poor sleep. I spent entirely too much time on the Internet, getting sucked into arguments about politics and meeting half of the mean, brutal trolls on the Internet. I argued with my boss, my board chair, my parents, my girlfriend, and lost a very old friend for being both dismissive of his Democratic Primary candidate-of-choice and also vehemently disagreeing about whether we should be scaremongering about the virulence of COVID-19. I cooked, blogged here, and talked on the phone incessantly. I waged a campaign with my Congressman to get the Department of State to declare whether their language "should depart" actually meant that we should depart. The Department responded that we "should" and that their recommendation had not changed, despite subsequent alerts that did not repeat that verbiage.

M: Our experience was obviously quite different, as we departed almost two weeks before Alexander, and were not required to quarantine or isolate. We chose on our own to turn in the rental car and minimize our time outside my brother's home as much as reasonably possible. After 14 days, we rented a car again, enrolled our daughter in a local elementary school, and were out and about as we pleased. As for our daughter, while being in an American school is a fresh challenge for her, she is enjoying spending time with her older cousin here.

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