Fear and Takeout: 14 Days in Coronavirus ‘Self-Quarantine’


Claire Campbell expected to spend this semester studying in Shanghai. Instead, she is five days into a self-imposed quarantine at her parents’ house in South Carolina.

She checks her temperature twice a day. She reads. And she waits for a family friend to slide takeout meals through the front door.

“I am going stir crazy,” said Ms. Campbell, 20, a Clemson University student who returned from her study abroad trip months earlier than planned because of an outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, that has left hundreds dead and sickened thousands more. “Every day kind of melts together.”

As United States officials impose new restrictions on travelers from China, many people who have returned to the country in recent days have hunkered down in their homes to make sure they were not carrying or spreading the disease.

Some were checking in regularly with local public health departments, taking their temperatures at regular intervals and receiving deliveries of food and water. Others were not conferring with the authorities, but choosing on their own to stay indoors, away from work, away from friends and, in some cases, away from everyone. All were counting down the days since they left China, waiting anxiously to see if symptoms develop — and to get back to normal.

“It’s pretty scary,” said a woman in Massachusetts whose husband and 18-month-old son have been holed up in the family’s basement since returning from China last week.

The woman, a medical researcher who asked not to be named, said her family’s self-imposed quarantine was a necessary step to protect others, especially since she feared her family had traveled on the same flight as a man who was later diagnosed with coronavirus.

“If people are responsible people,” she said, “they are willing to do this.”

Only 11 cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in the United States as of Tuesday afternoon, but the rapid spread of the disease through China has mobilized American health officials. Passengers from China were being funneled into 11 airports and screened for signs of the disease.

About 200 Americans evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, were being quarantined on a military base. And those who had traveled in other parts of China were being asked by federal authorities to “self-quarantine” in their homes for 14 days in case symptoms emerged.

  • Updated Feb. 4, 2020

    • Eleven cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in the United States, including a 35-year-old man in Washington State, a couple in their 60s in Chicago and six people in California. If you live in California, here’s what this means for you.
    • American citizens and permanent residents who fly to the U.S from China are now subject to a two-week quarantine.
    • A high school exchange student may have been among the last Americans to arrive home in time to avoid the mandated quarantine.
    • Mask hoarders may increase the risk of an outbreak in the U.S. Health care workers risk infection if they cannot get the protective gear.
    • Most experts agree: To protect yourself wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
    • Affected by travel? Or do you know someone who is? Please contact us at coronavirus@nytimes.com if you are willing to be contacted by a reporter or have your comments used for a coming story.

“This virus has literally only existed on planet Earth in humans for maybe two months,” said Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, who added that most people who arrived on commercial flights from China had volunteered to isolate themselves. “There is so much we don’t know about it that it leads us to take additional precautions.”

By Tuesday, as more Americans prepared to leave Wuhan on government evacuation flights, signs of growing concern were evident at the country’s borders.

Someone who landed at Los Angeles International Airport was placed under a federal quarantine order on Monday and isolated at a military base because of the person’s travel history. A Canadian who tried to enter the United States by land was turned away for recently being in China. And a child who had been in quarantine in California after arriving on a previous evacuation flight was hospitalized after developing a fever and was being tested for coronavirus.

Mr. Cuccinelli said the federal government was directing air carriers to prevent most people who have traveled in China over the past few weeks from boarding flights to the United States if they are not American citizens. “They won’t even be on the plane,” he said.

But he acknowledged that on Sunday alone, in the final hours before the federal government’s quarantine rules took effect, some 5,000 American citizens flew back from China.

“If we had to actually quarantine all of those people instead of rely on self-quarantines, you can just imagine what that would do to available resources,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “It would blow the doors off them.”

Even in states where no one has received a diagnosis of coronavirus, precautions were put in place.

In Texas, where Joint Base San Antonio was preparing for the possibility that it would house quarantined travelers from China, military leaders scheduled a town-hall meeting for Wednesday to answer community concerns about safety. Indiana health officials said they were monitoring a resident who federal authorities had said should be quarantined at home. And in Wheeling, W.Va., public health officials pulled someone out of an elementary school on Monday and placed the person and a family member in quarantine because they had just returned from Hong Kong.

“It’s going to be that time in the house together, watching a lot of movies, having family and friends bring the groceries over,” said Howard Gamble, the administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, which is checking in with the quarantined family by phone each day to make sure they are not developing any coronavirus symptoms.

Public health officials said the immediate threat to Americans remained low. But federal guidance for travelers has evolved quickly, creating a confusing patchwork of policies.

Starting Sunday evening, most people from other countries who had recently been in China were not being allowed into the United States, and Americans who had come from China were being asked to isolate themselves for two weeks. Some travelers, including Ms. Campbell, the Clemson student, chose to cloister themselves despite arriving several days before the rules took effect.

“I was thinking about others,” said Ms. Campbell, who is majoring in international business and Chinese, and who said she had been looking forward to her study abroad trip for years. “People might not be comfortable knowing I was in China.”

Evidence of public discomfort, even in the absence of any coronavirus symptoms, was widespread. In Portage, Mich., where a family with two children had recently returned from China, school officials said rumors circulated widely on social media over the weekend about a potential health risk.

“The social media creates a certain amount of frenzy, and all of a sudden misinformation becomes fact,” said Mark Bielang, the superintendent. “It really creates a problem.”

[Have you been affected by fear or concern over the coronavirus? Contact us at coronavirus@nytimes.com to share your story.]

But when the school district tried to assuage fears about coronavirus by releasing a statement, it referred to “one case that we are aware of,” setting off more concerns. A day later, school officials released a second statement, clarifying that they were referring to a case of students traveling in China, not a case of the disease.

“We’re trying to not create panic,” said Mr. Bielang, who said the two children who had been in China were staying home and staying in touch with their teachers by computer.

At Princeton University, Alexander Luo said his roommates asked him to stay in a private bedroom after he got back from China. He had still not returned to class on Tuesday, despite being cleared by the university.

“Even if there wasn’t a quarantine,” said Mr. Luo, 18, “my roommates were concerned enough that they basically prescribed their own version of one on me.”

Miriam Jordan contributed reporting.


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