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What It's Like To Be Evacuated From China — And Quarantined Over Coronavirus Fears


Hundreds of people who were evacuated from China because of the coronavirus are now quarantined at military bases around the U.S. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been talking with some of them. He's in the studio now to share their stories.

Hi, Rob.


KELLY: All right, so who are these people you've been speaking with? Tell me about them.

STEIN: Yeah, so I talked to two pretty exhausted women who arrived at two military bases in California just yesterday. And they're being held there for about two weeks under federal quarantine, and they both described, you know, pretty harrowing experiences trying to get back to the U.S. The first woman I talked to, her name is Chunlin Leonhard. She's 55, a law professor from New Orleans who was visiting her sister and brother in China. She described getting trapped by China's lockdown of the Hubei province, where the outbreak began, and struggling to find a way to get home.

CHUNLIN LEONHARD: When people are locking up, you know, buildings and apartment complexes or blocking roads, there's nothing you could do. And that's kind of scary because I knew that when that was happening, there was no place I could go to. I just felt totally helpless.

STEIN: And the second woman, her name is Ning Xinxiu (ph). She's 30 and lives in New Jersey. She got trapped, too, while visiting family, and she couldn't believe it when she heard the U.S. government was evacuating U.S. officials first.

NING XINXIU: It was a progression of confusion, then some despair. Then I felt some anger as the days went by, and I had never heard back from the State Department or the embassy despite emailing and calling them many times.

KELLY: Wow. So let me let you walk us through how their stories have unfolded. How did they get out of China?

STEIN: Yeah. So after lots of those frantic emails and calls, both women finally got seats on two State Department evacuation planes but then had a pretty crazy night at the Wuhan airport. Nobody seemed to know what to do, where to go, when the planes were going to take off. At one point, Leonhard says, some parents thought they might get separated from their kids.

KELLY: Oh. Did it get easier once they were on the plane and it obviously took off since they're back here now?

STEIN: Yeah. I mean, they were obviously relieved to finally be in the air, but they - and what they described was - sounds like the cargo planes that have been converted to carry passengers - you know, there were hooks hanging from the ceiling. Doctors were going around, taking everyone's temperature. Some passengers were in what looked like some kind of makeshift isolation tents in the back of the planes, and everyone was wearing masks. Leonhard says she was constantly sanitizing her hands.

KELLY: So they arrive back. They get to these military bases in California, and then what?

STEIN: You know, they said it was like the whole plane just let out a huge sigh of relief when they landed.

LEONHARD: People were really happy. There were clapping their hands. I was very, very relieved, and I was really happy, actually.

STEIN: You know, both women say they're - one of their other really big emotions has been gratitude - I mean, just grateful to be home and safe in the United States even though they're being held for about 14 days under this - the country's first mandatory federal quarantine order in a half century. Here's Chunlin Leonhard again.

LEONHARD: Well, in a ideal world, I would prefer not to be locked up, but in light of the risk, you know, there is a good chance that I was exposed to the virus. I'm OK with that, and more importantly, I know there is an end. So I know in 14 days, if everything's OK, it's going to be over. But back in China, I didn't have that certainty. I had no idea this was going to end.

STEIN: Yeah. So they both first landed at the Travis Air Force Base, which is located between San Francisco and Sacramento. Shoes plane then went onto the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar in San Diego.

KELLY: And how's she doing?

STEIN: You know, she's also grateful to be home and to be safe, but, you know, she sounds a little less accepting of the isolation she's in right now.

NING: Yeah. I would rather, like, have my freedom and go back home and go to work as normal and, you know, see my loved ones. It's almost like being imprisoned here.

KELLY: Did they tell you about what kind of care - what kind of conditions there are on these bases?

STEIN: Yeah. They say they're really happy, actually, with the kind of help they're getting since they've gone back and that the accommodations on these bases are pretty nice. They're basically staying in hotels on the bases. They're not super-fancy, but they have everything they need. And they're getting their temperatures checked twice a day. They're keeping an eye out for other symptoms, any symptoms of the coronavirus. They don't have to stay in their rooms, but they're being told to stay about six feet away from anyone who isn't a family member. And they don't have to wear masks, but both women say most of the evacuees are doing that. Here's Chunlin Leonhard again.

LEONHARD: People didn't want to get too close. Nobody wants to be close to anybody. And also, people get pretty upset if you don't put on your mask properly.

STEIN: A few of these evacuees have been taken to local hospitals when they've developed symptoms that could be the coronavirus, but both seem - most of them seem pretty healthy so far.

KELLY: Good news so far - that was NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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