When a taxi driver showed up to pick up Priscilla Dickey and her 8-year-old daughter from their home in Wuhan, China, the epicenter the outbreak of the coronavirus, he wore a blue hazmat suit.
Dickey took a video on the familiar ride to the airport. The streets, which are normally clogged with traffic, were empty. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the city of 11 million people has been on an unprecedented city lockdown for nearly two weeks, with normal commercial flights stopped.
Dickey and Hermione had hoped to leave on the first evacuation flight out last week but couldn’t. This week, they boarded a flight charted by the US State Department to bring Americans home from Hubei province, where hundreds have died from the virus.
An eerie cab to the airport on deserted streets. Health screenings. A long wait to board a flight home. A plane full of masked passengers. This is what it is like to be an American citizen evacuated out of Wuhan on a charter flight.
“Now, it’s starring to finally hit me that I’m going to go America,” Dickey said, sighing in the video she recorded before boarding her flight.
The last flights home
Since the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in December, it has killed more people than the 2003 SARS epidemic, which left 349 people dead in China over nine months.
The virus has spread to 25 countries and infected more than 20,000 people, causing a global alert. The World Health Organization said the virus is not yet a pandemic.
Hundreds of Americans have been ferried out of the country. But the chartered flights carrying US citizens from Wuhan this week are likely to be the last.
Two flights out of Wuhan landed Wednesday morning in California carrying about 350 passengers, bringing the number of such flights arriving in the US since January 29 to three.
Frank Hannum and his wife were in China to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his wife’s family, he told CNN. Lockdowns were implemented during the visit, but Hannum credited local Chinese officials with helping his family get to the airport for their flight out of Wuhan.
Hannum recorded the experience on the flight. Passengers sat in the cabin, their mouths covered with masks. State Department staff and health workers walked around the plane or stood, wearing protective gear.
In the background, a large sheet of plastic separated the area where passengers displaying symptoms would sit, Hannum said. Only one woman was moved to this area during the flight, he said.
There were several families with small children or babies on board, Hannum said. And throughout the flight, at least one of them was “in meltdown around me at all times.”
“Everyone was very understanding and did their best,” he said, “but it was quite stressful.”
Hannum told CNN he was “very grateful for the ride home from the US government.” But there was some disorganization and it took awhile to disembark once they landed, only adding to the stress.
“After unloading the plane, things went very smoothly,” Hannum said, adding passengers were met with sandwiches from Firehouse Subs and cookies.
One of the planes remained at Travis Air Force Base. The second plane refueled before taking passengers later Wednesday morning to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, where they were undergoing a health screening.
The waiting game
The passengers at both locations will be under a 14-day quarantine managed by CDC, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col Chris Mitchell said.
“They are happy and relieved to be back in the United States,” said Dr. Christopher Braden, an official with the CDC.
When their 14-day quarantine period is over, they’ll be provided transportation to the airport to continue on to their journeys, Braden said.
Hannum’s first day in quarantine was “very comfortable,” he said, but everyone is focused on maintaining their health. They’re concerned, he said, about the possibility of having to stay longer than 14 days.
“All of us understand the situation and importance of preventing the spread of the disease,” he said. “But we also have jobs and families to support.”
Right now Hannum is just “grateful to be home. Grateful for the transportation. Appreciative of all the workers who are working 24 hours per day to try to help US citizens trapped in China.”
Apart from military bases, groups of Americans arriving from China have been taken to hotels and other sites to wait out the federally-mandated waiting period.
From there it’s a long waiting game that has consisted of Zumba classes, sandwiches and hours of downtime.
Before Dickey boarded her flight, the magnitude of the virus’ outbreak seemed to sink in. There have been 12 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the US.
“I’m just realizing the scope of the situation I’m in,” Dickey said in the video.
Two more flights from Wuhan are scheduled to come later this week — one headed to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; the other going to Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.