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What your life is like under a coronavirus quarantine in California

American evacuees arrive at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar
American evacuees from China arrive Wednesday at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
(Krysten Houk / U.S. Marine Corps)

Board games for children? Definitely. Tai chi in the parking lot? Maybe. Red wine dropped off by relatives? Nope.

For the hundreds of Americans who have been evacuated from China amid the coronavirus outbreak, the stress and worries of possible infection and getting back to the United States have been joined by another pressing concern: How do you fill two unexpected weeks quarantined on a military base?

To be sure, there are frequent medical checks for symptoms of the illness. But for the rest of the time, officials are navigating how to make evacuees feel at home on the bases, three of which are in California, while also protecting them and others from potential infection.

The quarantine orders are the first in 50 years issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials say they are necessary to prevent the global spread of a virus that has already infected 28,000 people worldwide.

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John McGory touched down at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego along with 166 other passengers Wednesday. The journey from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak and where McGory had lived for the last six years, was filled with detours and stops and took 37 hours, he said.

McGory, 65, was put up in an apartment in the base’s bachelors quarters, which had been emptied for the arriving passengers. Staff regularly drop off meals at his door and also take his temperature to check for a fever.

McGory said officials laid out ground rules in a welcome meeting Wednesday. Face masks are not required, and people who work and live on the base have been told not to interact with the passengers.

Officials told McGory’s group that they would set up a message board for people to throw out ideas for group activities. Someone suggested a tai chi class, McGory said. Officials said they would bring board and card games.

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McGory said he wants to ride out the quarantine by writing about his experiences and by teaching a storytelling class where perhaps people can share tales of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital.

“It can’t be worse than the last two weeks,” McGory said.

McGory’s flight was one of several recently arranged by U.S. officials for U.S. citizens and their families to escape China during the outbreak. Three other bases outside California have also been designated as quarantine sites.

At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, luggage sits outside the building where Americans were evacuated from China due to the coronavirus.
At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, luggage sits outside the building where Americans were evacuated from China due to the coronavirus.
(John McGory)

The coronavirus outbreak that began late last year in Wuhan has spread to four continents and killed 565 people as of Wednesday. The U.S. has advised Americans not to fly to China and is temporarily barring foreign nationals who have recently visited China from entering the country.

Passengers were not allowed to board flights to the U.S. if they showed symptoms of illness, according to CDC officials. They were checked for fevers while on the planes and as soon as their landed.

After touchdown in Miramar on Wednesday, four passengers from McGory’s flight were taken to local hospitals after showing symptoms of coronavirus infection.

In a news conference Wednesday, Dr. Christopher Braden, a deputy director with the CDC, acknowledged that others on the base and in the greater San Diego area may be concerned about the evacuees living there for two weeks. He said people on the base had expressed concern that their children who live there may get sick or not be allowed to attend school.

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But the new virus spreads through close contact, similar to the flu, Braden said. This coronavirus also seems to require more prolonged contact to be transmitted to another person, he said. He said that those quarantined would be continually checked for symptoms.

“They’ve had a very difficult experience, and we’re doing everything possible to care for them,” he said. “We are in a critical time period in the international spread of the virus, and this action is necessary try to prevent the spread here in the U.S.”

McGory moved to Wuhan six years ago to teach English at a university there. He had planned to move back to the U.S. this month, but those plans were upended by the coronavirus outbreak.

Since late January, he had been mostly confined to his apartment on the university campus. He tried to talk on the phone and message with people throughout the day to stave off boredom, he said.

As the quarantine continued into February, people began to panic, he said. Over a beer, a friend told him she didn’t think she would survive the illness if she got it because of her weak lungs. Grocery stores were running low on food. The city, which has a population of 11 million, was mostly deserted, he said.

McGory had planned to pack up his belongings and ship some of them to Ohio, where he is from and plans to resettle. But in a rush to catch one of the flights back to the U.S. this week, he decided to leave behind most of his clothes, he said. He was allowed to take only 70 pounds of luggage on the flight.

It hurt to leave behind his friends and co-workers, especially in the midst of an outbreak, he said. A goodbye hug with a friend made him breakdown in tears, he said.

“It makes me sad that after six years in Wuhan I have to leave it this way,” he said.

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McGory said his flight to the U.S. had at least 50 children onboard. The plane made a seven-hour stop at Travis Air Force Base outside Vacaville, Calif., before arriving in San Diego. The detour was to drop off people reuniting with their families, officials said.

When the plane arrived in San Diego, the 14-day countdown clock started ticking. Once two weeks are up, those quarantined should be released, officials said. If someone falls ill while on the base, their close contacts may need to spend additional days in quarantine until they are cleared, officials said.

“I hope I stay healthy. That’s everyone’s concern here first,” McGory said.

Braden said that while living at Miramar, the evacuees will receive three meals a day as well as snacks. They are able to spend time with each other as well as explore the two buildings and the surrounding area that is included in the quarantine, he said.

One of the quarantine areas has a playground, and the other will soon get one. Officials are also assessing what other needs families might have, such as playing cards or a basketball court, said Caroline Thorman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

“We are helping facilities with all the needs … all of the recreational activities that these families might need so they can have a pleasant and welcome stay at the base,” Thorman said at the news conference Wednesday.

McGory has two sisters who live a 10-minute drive from the base. He inquired to see if one of them could bring him a bottle of red wine. Staff said no.

The breakfast that John McGory, an American evacuated from China amid the coronavirus outbreak, was served Thursday.
The breakfast that John McGory, an American evacuated from China amid the coronavirus outbreak, was served Thursday.
(John McGory)

McGory said he is trying to stay optimistic. When he reconnected to the internet Wednesday, he saw that while he was in transit, his grandson was born — Arthur, his fourth grandchild.

During the initial meeting at Miramar after the group deplaned, as they reviewed coronavirus symptoms and quarantine instructions, McGory decided to share some positive news with the group.

“I told them about my grandson,” he said, “and everyone applauded.”


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