A Palo Alto mother and daughter returned home Tuesday after spending weeks at the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, and then in quarantine on a U.S. military base in southern California.
Esther Tiferes Tebeka and her 15-year-old daughter, Chaya, were released from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County on Tuesday morning, having been cleared by federal and county authorities of any possible contamination with the deadly virus, which has killed 1,107 people and sickened more than 43,000 worldwide. The majority of the cases were reported in China.
Tebeka said her visit to see her parents in Wuhan starting on Jan. 1 became harrowing after the outbreak of the virus, which had jumped from an animal to humans and proliferated rapidly. By Jan. 20, Chinese government officials locked down the city. Essentials such as groceries became scarce as residents emptied store shelves. Nearly out of food, Tebeka and her daughter were finally able to leave for the United States on a converted cargo plane on Jan. 28. It was the first plane to evacuate from Wuhan. The passengers were placed in quarantine for 14 days to make sure they hadn't contracted the virus, which causes fever, cough and shortness of breath and leads, in some people, to pneumonia.
In a Feb. 7 phone interview from her quarantined quarters, Tebeka described their experience in Wuhan and life under quarantine.
With the isolation lifted, Tebeka looks forward to being reunited with her two other children.
"Thank God," she said by phone as her husband, Haim (Marc) Tebeka drove her and their Chaya through Los Angeles late Tuesday afternoon.
Tebeka said she was tired, having been unable to sleep from the excitement of leaving quarantine. She started packing at 5 a.m. and they had their last meal on the base — a salad — at 6 a.m., she said. After having their temperature checked for the last time, they took their suitcases to a location to prepare for departure at 8 a.m. After receiving documentation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that showed they were cleared from any illness, they were allowed to leave by 9:45 a.m.
Tebeka said she and her daughter were among the first 195 people in quarantine to leave. Her husband picked them up at the air base. Dozens of others threw their protective masks in the air in celebration as they boarded buses to take them to the Ontario and Los Angeles International airports.
"It feels really, really free. We were not in jail, but psychologically, knowing you can't move around freely" was hard, she said. "I feel very relieved to see my husband."
Chaya fell asleep as they drove north, tired from the excitement and early start to their day. "She wanted to be home. She was so done," Tebeka said. "It was very hard for her — a lot tougher than for me. We are grown-ups. There were no kids her age, no Wi-Fi. She was so bored that she took one book — it was a little book for kids, a coloring book — and she was coloring in that."
Tebeka expects their experience will have long-term effects but is grateful for the helping hands she met along the way.
"I'm grateful that God watched over us. The U.S. government was so generous, and the Chabad Orthodox Jewish community, they have been there for us. That made it possible to go through this easier," said Tebeka, whose family are Orthodox Jews.
"You appreciate life more. This experience taught me we should not take anything for granted in this life. Even the air we breathe — even in a literal sense."
There were no cases of coronavirus among the people in quarantine, Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser said at a press conference on Tuesday morning.
"I want to make one thing crystal clear. These folks do not have novel coronavirus," he said. A 14-day quarantine exceeds the incubation period for the virus and there was no reason to further hold any of the evacuees. They were tested for the virus daily and had their temperatures taken twice a day.
"I don't want somebody to be attacked, ostracized or outed for having been part of this quarantine group," he said. "They don't need additional testing; they don't need to be shunned; they don't have novel coronavirus. ... Our work here is done. These people are going home."
"We are doing everything we can to educate our evacuees and to provide them with information on how to access mental health services if they need it and to educate the communities," Rear Admiral Dr. Nancy Knight, director of the Division of Global Health Protection with CDC said at the press conference. The evacuees now out of quarantine "pose no health risk to themselves, to their families, to their places of work, to schools or their community. There is no health risk of novel coronavirus from these individuals whatsoever."
The quarantine is the first in the U.S. since 1963. Knight said she was confident the procedures taken during the quarantine had worked well to protect the public and the evacuees. During their stay, the evacuees were separated from staff at the air base and stayed in a cordoned-off area where they conducted all of their community activities.
In addition, three people who were not part of Tebeka's group were also quarantined at the base, having come in from Los Angeles International Airport. They were kept separate so as to not mix individuals with different quarantine periods and dates.