The first Americans quarantined after evacuation from Wuhan, China, the center of this winter’s coronavirus outbreak, are now beginning to settle back into normal routines.
For 24-year-old Daniel Wethli, a history buff who majored in philosophy as an undergrad, leaving Wuhan last month at the urging of the U.S. State Department was bittersweet.
His family was glad to hear he was safe and headed home as the virus spread through the city he’d moved to as a Fulbright scholar in December. But Wethli, who’d been to China on prior academic trips and takes delight in the language, the history, and the people he’s met there, felt like he was just getting started in his studies.
“I just loved Wuhan,” Wethli tells NPR. “It’s probably my favorite [of the cities] that I’ve been to in China.”
The historical museums in Wuhan are beautiful, he discovered. “The 1911 Revolution Museum is gorgeous and massive.” He loved the high energy of the city, and found his new neighbors to be “very friendly, and very open to meeting new people.”
He was in Wuhan just over a month when the large urban metropolis was locked down.
“It was just eerily silent,” Wethli says. “You could hear the wind — no horns beeping, no stores open. It was very strange to see a city built for that many people completely silent.”
In the days before the city’s quarantine, Wethli initially figured worries about coronavirus might be exaggerated. “It was hard to tell how serious it really was.”
But, as more cases and news emerged, he spent more time in his dorm room, heading out once a day to see which stores were open, and to stock up on groceries. Like others in the city, he started wearing a face mask, and washing his hands a lot.
Wethli was at the Wuhan Walmart on Jan. 23 when the U.S. embassy called and told him of the plan to evacuate Americans from the city. They strongly urged him to catch the flight they’d arranged for several days later, so he did.
Along with nearly 200 other Americans, Wethli spent about two weeks in quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California.
It was comfortable, he says, with “hotel-like rooms, a fridge, TV and microwave.” He enjoyed the people he met — including an airline pilot, a music producer and a theme park designer. Some of those quarantined taught classes, like art and Zumba, to help while away the time. And, though the group bonded and pledged to stay in touch after quarantine, Wethli was eager to get home.
On a commercial flight from Los Angeles after his quarantine release, Wethli sat next to a chatty woman who asked what had taken him to California. She was just making conversation, but he was cautious.
“I didn’t want to tell her why I was there,” he says. “So I just said I had some days off, and that I wanted to see California.”
Now back at home, he says he’s been warmly embraced by family and good friends.
Still, he’s noticed that some people outside his inner circle are clearly nervous to be around him. On a recent trip to the gym to work out, Wethli says, he ran into the father of a high school friend and reached out to shake his hand.
“He said, ‘with the coronavirus going around’ he didn’t want to shake hands with anybody.,” Wethli says. “It kind of surprised me.”
There’s no sign that Wethli was ever infected with the virus; during his 14 days in quarantine he was checked two times a day for symptoms of the disease – all tests came back negative. And he feels fine.
Still, during a recent dinner out with friends, one repeatedly asked if Wethli could make the rest of them sick. He kept asking, “‘There’s no way that you can get me sick — right?’ Are you sure you’re OK? There’s no way I’m gonna end up sick?’ ”
“He asked me a lot of times — many, many times,” Wethli says, no matter how firmly Wethli assured his friend “that I’ve been watched extensively, checked twice a day for two weeks in quarantine. He was still pretty worried.”
Some people he doesn’t know have been even harsher. Not long after arriving home, he was interviewed by local TV News, and when he checked comments on the station’s Facebook page later he was shocked.
“One of the comments was ‘Get that clown out of here.’ You know, they wanted me to leave the area; there was a GIF of a movie character shaking his head. And then there was one other person who said I shouldn’t be around — that I should leave.”
It was a reaction Wethli didn’t anticipate. “People, especially behind screens, can be mean, and I guess I sort of expected that. But it’s eye-opening, to say the least.”
Though his Fulbright came to an abrupt end, Wethli is now considered a Fulbright alum. He plans to travel around the U.S. for a bit, he says, and then may apply for a job with the U.S. Foreign Service.
He hopes to return to Wuhan. “Once all this cools down, I really would like to go see how Wuhan recovers and how people are doing there.” He wants to re-visit many of the places he loved, and says he truly hopes people in the U.S. “will become more educated about the virus and not as xenophobic — which is sad to see.”