MARCH AIR FORCE BASE (CBS SF) — Palo Alto’s Esther Tiferes Tebeka has spent the last 12 days in coronavirus quarantine at March Air Force Base in Southern California.
Tebeka, and her daughter Chaya, 15, were visiting family in Wuhan in mid-January, when word began to spread of a mysterious illness overtaking the city. She said panic set in when the Chinese government locked down all forms of travel in the city of 11 million people on January 22.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus Outbreak
Tebeka began a steady stream of emails and calls to local US consulates, and even enlisted the help of a rabbi in Beijing to pressure government officials to help her get on board the evacuation flights being chartered by the US.
“It was very stressful, even depressing because every minute that passed, it felt further away from the hope that I might not be evacuated,” Tebeka said. “And I kept on trying, calling, emailing, nonstop.”
Tebeka’s tenacity paid off, with a confirmation email from the US consulate in the final week in January, that mother and child would be on board the January 28 flight from Wuhan to Anchorage, final destination in Southern California.
The chartered flight would be on board a Michigan-based Kalitta Air cargo plane converted for carrying 235 passengers. Tickets were handwritten, and since there were no overhead bins, bags were lined up on the floor.
Areas of the plane were sectioned off with plastic, making the cabin resemble a health clinic. The plane landed at March AFB, and the cohort was taken by bus to their living quarters on base.
“But I didn’t give up. If I had given up, I would still be in China right now,” said Tebeka.
The evacuees have been screened countless times before boarding and since their arrival. Tebeka says not a single evacuee has tested positive for the virus.
She described the 14-day quarantine as more “downtime” than romantic getaway, comparing the spartan living quarters, complete with a full size bed, microwave, mini-fridge and bathroom, to a three-star hotel.
Photos of the food offerings show fresh fruit, coffee, instant noodles, and soda. Tebeka must cook her own kosher meals in an electric skillet in her room.
“It’s definitely not a vacation,” she said. “But, if you think miserably, you will be miserable.”
In China, the situation has become increasingly desperate, as cell phone footage shows government authorities wrestling citizens to the ground who are suspected of harboring the virus, and dragging them into quarantine centers. Lack of staff and adequate supplies are straining the government resources, as millions are still on lockdown.
At March AFB, Tebeka said there is far less chaos. Daily briefings and Q&A during the 10 a.m. update the evacuees everyday. Kids are provided toys, games, and bikes.
One of the biggest complaints? Spotty cell coverage, and no wi-fi. But Tebeka admits it’s a small inconvenience in the face of a worldwide health threat.
“I’m so grateful,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be in this country. The country has been so generous and caring. I think I am forever grateful.”
The quarantined group at March AFB is set to be released Tuesday afternoon.