TIANJIN, China — The Wuhan coronavirus epidemic was barely a whisper the day my wife, Annie Gao, boarded a flight for her hometown, the world’s biggest littlest-known coastal city of 15 million people. No one knew then how quickly the deadly virus would spread. Media reports hardly gave the crisis a mention on the 6 o’clock news.

Days away from the nation’s most important holiday, chun jie or Spring Festival, also known as the Lunar New Year, she was once again surrounded by old friends and family. Gao used vacation time from her full-time job at the North Dakota State University cafeteria to return. She didn’t go back for the holiday, but to help take care of her aging father who recently suffered two strokes, leaving him partially paralyzed.

Gao couldn’t have timed her return better, and in hindsight, worse. Spring Festival is the one time every year where family must return home.

Apart from taking care of her father, there were lucky paper cuttings to hang, hong bao or red envelopes to stuff with money for nieces, nephews and neighbor children. Windows needed washing, floors had to be scrubbed. There were vegetable dumplings to eat, a tradition reserved for the celebration’s eve to help shut the mouths of anyone who meant the family harm.

By the time Gao could login to WeChat, a communication platform popular in Asia, and talk with me, the Wuhan coronavirus was spreading, snagging headlines worldwide. Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province, was sequestered, nobody in, nobody out. Soon after, other cities began closing down. Tianjin and its neighbor, Beijing, the capital city, soon followed suit. On Thursday, Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

In 2003, when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, epidemic hit, state-controlled news agencies tried to downplay the crisis. SARS, which is also a coronavirus, infected about 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 after patients experienced flu-like symptoms that led to pneumonia within days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the Wuhan coronavirus, so called because it has not been assigned a catchy name, the government isn’t taking any chances.

Empty streets

Typically a boisterous city because its navigable deep river waters help trade, Tianjin is rarely quiet and hosts the nation’s largest holiday fireworks that turns night to red dawn.

But not this year, Gao said. The lucky paper cuttings are few this year. Children aren’t leaving home to accept the hong bao for fear of getting sick. Festive fireworks aren’t as loud as she remembered.

Tianjin streets usually, teeming with hundreds of thousands of people, are now empty. Shopping centers are locked up. Restaurants and companies are closed. Even the morning breakfast vendors aren’t peddling their jianbing — fried dough sticks with mung bean, eggs, sweet bean and chili sauces, a favorite in northern China.

“I’m not scared,” my wife told me. “The government is dealing with this issue very seriously. So many city leaders and health officials are holding meetings and secluding off areas, cities even, to make sure that the virus doesn’t spread any further. Every day, all day, it’s all everyone on the news is talking about, they’re telling the laobaixing," the Chinese people, "how to protect themselves, and letting us know if there are any changes, or how many people have died, or how many have gotten sick. They’re telling us about it. Every station is on it.”

Based off of information from CCTV 1, China's national flagship television network, Gao said the numbers of infected are being reported earlier there than what is being reported in America.

As of 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 31, a total of about 88,693 people were under observation across the country, and an additional 15,238 people were needing care. A total of 9,692 people had been infected with the Wuhan coronavirus, according to CCTV 1, with 1,370 people seriously ill and 213 people who died. Chinese media reported earlier in the week that 171 people were healed. The virus spread to 31 provinces and municipalities, forcing governments to close schools, ban most types of public transportation and impose strict guidelines regarding face masks.

Tianjin, which is about 700 miles northeast of Wuhan, the epidemic’s epicenter, is one of the cities included in the shutdown. As of Thursday, Tianjin had 29 confirmed cases of Wuhan coronavirus. Public transportation was still running, but few people were riding the typically crowded buses. For the festive time of year it is, with families traveling long distances to see loved ones, few people were on the roads, Gao said.

A Tianjin bust stop. Everyone wears surgical masks to help ward off possible infection. Special to The Forum
A Tianjin bust stop. Everyone wears surgical masks to help ward off possible infection. Special to The Forum

"The only place we can go really is the market," she said. "Everyone needs to eat, and nobody speaks much while buying groceries. Yes, it's boring being trapped inside. Sleep and eat, sleep and eat. What kind of luck is this? Such a long time not going home, then coming back and can't go anywhere."

Anyone taking a public bus or a government taxi has to undergo a temperature check before getting in, and drivers won't let anyone on who is not wearing a mask.

"Some of the elderly aren't wearing masks," Gao said. "They seem to just not care if they get sick or not. The government says, 'don't go out, just stay comfortable at home,' but not everyone is listening. These next few days are the most important as it will be the end of the first batch of people across China who came in contact with the virus — 14 days. Some people get sick within four days, some within a week, the news said one person didn't show symptoms for 23 days."

Chinese health officials are saying that by the 15th day of Spring Festival, seven days from Sunday, Feb. 2, they will have a better grasp on the situation and whether they believe the epidemic will worsen or improve.

An alert from WeChat on Jan. 26 reported that anyone caught spreading misinformation on their platform pertaining to the Wuhan coronavirus would be subject to arrest and possible imprisonment.

"The fabrication of false dangers, epidemics, disasters, and police information spread on information networks or other media, or if it is known that such false information is intentionally spread on information networks or other media including those who seriously disrupt the social order shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment, detention or control of less than three years; if they cause serious consequences, they shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of 3 to 7 years."

In Tianjin, the streets are almost empty, face masks are a must.  Everyone is stuck at homes or in place, and to pass the time during the national crisis some people are putting tables together to play ping pong.  Special to The Forum
In Tianjin, the streets are almost empty, face masks are a must. Everyone is stuck at homes or in place, and to pass the time during the national crisis some people are putting tables together to play ping pong. Special to The Forum

“It’s so quiet,” Gao said. “There’s nobody on the streets. The worst thing is I can’t find gaba cai and old tofu,” a favorite breakfast of hers made mostly from beans. Gao joked, but the breakfast is not easily available in America.

The only businesses that remain open are hospitals, pharmacies and some markets, Gao said. Many stores are running out of surgical masks, but because of the national disaster anyone caught selling masks for exorbitant prices can be reported.

“They will be caught and face severe consequences,” Gao said. “Right now, China has this problem, and it is nice to see that citizens are working together to face these difficult times. There are many health officials that have volunteered their time to go to Wuhan and Hubei Province to help because they don’t have enough hospital staff or space.”

Virus spreads

The Wuhan coronavirus has left China’s shores and spread to states of Illinois, Arizona, California and Washington, according to the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Division of Viral Diseases. As of Thursday, the CDC reported that out of 165 people suspected of being infected with the virus in the United States, six patients tested positive. So far, no one has died from the Wuhan coronavirus anywhere outside China, the CDC reported.

North Dakota and Minnesota are not among the states listed by the NCIRD as infection zones. The CDC and the North Dakota Department of Health are monitoring the outbreak of the respiratory illness, which has symptoms similar to the bird flu or SARS.

“This is a rapidly changing situation,” said Michelle Dethloff, of the North Dakota Department of Health Division of Disease Control. “While the information available suggests the immediate health risk for the general public is low, we take any new infectious disease seriously and we’re preparing accordingly.”

The Wuhan coronavirus differs from influenza and is worrying health officials because of its potential elongated incubation period, CCTV 1 reported. Some people carry the virus for two weeks before becoming sick. In Tianjin, only one person had the virus for seven days before being hospitalized, CCTV 1 reported. The elderly and those suffering from underlying illnesses are especially susceptible to the Wuhan coronavirus.

Contagion is spread via respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, which is similar to how the common cold or flu is spread, according to the CDC. The new coronavirus causes symptoms similar to pneumonia that can range from a slight cough, to fever and difficulty breathing, according to the CDC.

The U.S. Department of State issued a travel advisory Monday urging Americans to reconsider travel to any part of China due to the disease, rather than just Wuhan and other affected areas.

Health personnel are taking temperature readings of everyone - entering buses, markets, residential areas, in an effort to catch symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus early. Jody Hagen / Special to The Forum
Health personnel are taking temperature readings of everyone - entering buses, markets, residential areas, in an effort to catch symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus early. Jody Hagen / Special to The Forum

To put the epidemic in perspective, the flu kills roughly 35,000 Americans every year, and so far in 2020 it has already sickened an estimated 15 million Americans and killed 8,200, according to the CDC.

As a husband, I am not as worried my wife may become sick, but that her return home may be delayed. Chinese news is already talking about America stopping all flights to and from China. Delta Air Lines announced it is reducing the number of China-bound flights to 21 a week from Feb. 6 through April 30.

For now, Gao is focusing on helping her father, trying to make him more comfortable. With three weeks before she is slated to return, she hopes the epidemic will soon end. If she chose to return now, she would be forced to enter through special destinations including Chicago, and airlines are already limiting flights to and from China. Would there be a waiting period? Would she have to be put into observation?

“I am nervous when I can go back. I don’t know what will happen,” Gao said.

A security guard orders people to sign in to a community near Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. Jody Hagen / Special to The Forum
A security guard orders people to sign in to a community near Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. Jody Hagen / Special to The Forum

About 400 miles northwest of Wuhan my brother, Richard Hagen, his wife, Jody, and their four children are living in the city of Xi'an, once the capital city of ancient China. Communication with them is difficult. Richard teaches English at a university, and Jody — not one to sit still — works in the health psychology field. Jody described what they're going through in a Facebook post.

"In the city of Xi'an we are already seeing extreme precautions put in place. The city buses and subways are shut down and highways are closed to the public. Many companies have closed their doors while others require masks before they will permit entry.

Richard Hagen and wife Jody wearing the masks they must wear if they leave the house. Jody Hagen / Special to The Forum
Richard Hagen and wife Jody wearing the masks they must wear if they leave the house. Jody Hagen / Special to The Forum

"The hunt for food to stock our freezer before we 'hunkered down' to wait out the storm was met with empty shelves in the veggie aisles as well as the instant noodle and flour aisles. While we are still seeing small amounts of fresh foods enter the city each day, the larger markets are bare and online shopping is difficult with many services shut down and deliveries on hold.

"Small villages are building walls and barricades to keep 'outsiders' away and city-dwellers are staying in and avoiding company. Our community has banned all non-residents from entering and we get temperature checked before entering markets or our complex."