Update: Palo Alto resident Esther Tiferes Tebeka and her daughter, Chaya, were released from quarantine on Feb. 11 as a precaution after coronavirus broke out during their trip to Wuhan, China. Read our latest story here.
From her quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, Palo Alto resident Esther Tiferes Tebeka on Friday pinpointed the moment she felt panic while trapped in Wuhan City, China, in January.
"On Saturday night (Jan. 25), I found out that not only was Wuhan quarantined, the whole city was prohibited from driving any vehicles," Tebeka, a former television host and journalist in Wuhan and Hubei, said during a phone call. "How were we going to get out of the city? That's when I panicked."
Tebeka and her 15-year-old daughter had flown to Wuhan, Tebeka's hometown, to visit her parents on Jan. 1. Her mother had been ill, though not with coronavirus, but during their stay, her health improved, Tebeka said.
Tebeka and her daughter, Chaya, who was on winter break from her private high school in Chicago, left Wuhan to tour the rest of China and returned to the city on Jan. 14 in time for the start of the Chinese New Year on Jan. 24.
But already trouble was brewing: Tebeka said that a China Central Television newscaster reported around Jan. 14 that cases of pneumonia were appearing in the city. Few people at the time were wearing masks, but Tebeka and Chaya did, and they also stayed inside. Starting Jan. 20 and each day after, the number of cases became much greater, she said. Within three days, the situation was grave. The government put the city of 11 million people under quarantine and banned anyone from driving.
"I heard on WeChat ... that people were dying," she recalled. "The whole city was a ghost city. Nobody was walking on the streets. All of the shelves in the grocery stores were empty. Even the salt was sold out."
Tebeka, who converted to Judaism and is married to Haim (Marc) Tebeka, a Hasidic Jew, keeps a kosher household. She and her daughter had only a small amount of challah and grape juice and were in danger of running out of kosher food in Wuhan, she said.
She called the U.S. Consulate in the city.
"I was really worried. The line was always busy, and even when I got in contact with someone I had to leave a message. There was voicemail only," she said.
Eventually, she received an automatic reply by email, directing her to register for a flight out of the country. On Jan. 26, she was relieved to hear that she was approved for a flight -- with just 230 seats -- that would take American citizens and diplomats to the U.S.
Tebeka had to get a special permit for her brother to drive her and her daughter to the airport. But even flying to America turned into a harrowing experience. The flight was to leave at 9 a.m., but it was rescheduled to that night and then didn't take off until after 4 a.m. the next day, she said. They traveled in a converted cargo plane for 40 hours, always wearing protective germ masks, first stopping in Anchorage, Alaska, where they were screened to make sure they weren't ill. There wasn't any kosher food on the plane, so Tebeka and Chaya went without a meal for the entire flight, she said.
From Alaska, they arrived at Ontario Airport in southern California on Jan. 28 and were screened again. Transferred to a bus, they were then taken to March Air Reserve Base, which is in a remote desert location. They, along with about 320 other Americans, were initially told they would be held for 72 hours. Soon after, however, authorities informed them they would be quarantined for 14 days to wait out the virus's 14-day incubation period.
If they test negative for the illness, they could be released on Tuesday, Feb. 11, she said. So far, no one in her quarantined group has tested positive.
The quarters are clean: Tebeka and her daughter are in two rooms with an adjoining bathroom. They have a microwave and a refrigerator, like in a hotel room.
Each morning at 10 a.m., she attends a group meeting with officials in the outdoor courtyard. There are daily health checks and interviews. There are also activities, like a Zumba exercise class.
But being Orthodox Jewish, Tebeka and Chaya have had to navigate one hurdle that the others in quarantine haven't dealt with: There isn't any kosher food on the base — and getting it has turned into its own adventure.
To start with, Tebeka's husband drove six hours to bring them meals.
"The phone in my room rang. They said that my husband had food for us and he was waiting in the visitors center. I said, 'Okay, I'm coming.'"
She asked someone in a uniform for directions. As she made her way in the dark, she was caught by surprise when she suddenly found herself surrounded by vehicles and soldiers carrying guns. Apparently, she was not supposed to be wandering around on the military base. Tebeka explained her culinary dilemma.
"They said, 'Go back.' I didn't have a choice. We were not allowed to see each other. It was worse than jail time," she said of not seeing her husband, even though he was there.
The food was brought to her quarters, and when it started to run out, Tebeka contacted Rabbi Shmuel Fuss of Chabad Jewish Community Center of Riverside, who was able to purchase groceries for her for the week and eventually arranged for her to get an electric frying pan. His wife cooked Tebeka and Chaya a Shabbat dinner.
Now 10 days into quarantine, Tebeka spends most of her time preparing meals in the room. There's no Wi-Fi, so her daughter spends much of her time talking to and texting her friends on her phone. They do have access to reading materials, however.
As for Zumba, it is co-ed, and her faith doesn't allow her and her daughter to dance with men. But Tebeka said spirits are good in the camp and everyone under quarantine has been accommodating, quiet and grateful. None of their group has come down with the coronavirus.
On the outside, Haim Tebeka waits for his wife's and daughter's release. Their other two children remain in Palo Alto, where friends are caring for them.
"Everyone has been amazingly nice," he said, and he understands why the government has to quarantine his wife and daughter.
Tebeka said she is also "very grateful" that the government evacuated them and for the care they have received.
When she is released, she will do two things: "See my children in Palo Alto who have been without their parents for two weeks and donate masks to Beijing."
There's one more thing: "To have a Shabbat meal with my family. I can't wait for that," she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.