SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A Palo Alto woman and her teenage daughter were released Tuesday from a southern California military base where they have been held in quarantine for two weeks after being airlifted out of the coronavirus outbreak in China.
At a noon press conference, doctors said that none of those quarantined have shone any sign of illness.
“It’s been two weeks and no case of novel coronavirus has been identified in any of our evacuees,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County public health officer. “Having gone through the 14-day quarantine which is well in excess of any reasonable incubation period, I want to make one thing absolutely crystal clear. These folks don’t have novel coronavirus.”
“These people were tested, sometime multiple times. Had thermometers pointed at their foreheads twice a day,” he continued. “They have done everything we asked them to do and more. Now it’s time for us to keep our end of the bargain…Yesterday I issued a letter to the community, stating that the negative social media comments and the confrontations with March Air Reserve Base personnel had to stop.”
“I get why people are concerned,” Kaiser continued. “I understand that…actions like that are not productive, not justified and not acceptable. I don’t want someone to be attacked or ostracized or outed for having to be part of this quarantine group…They don’t need additional testing. They don’t need to be shunned. They don’t have novel coronavirus.”
Upon release, the evacuees threw their masks into the air like caps thrown at a graduation ceremony.
Esther Tebeka and her 15-year-old daughter, Chaya, were among the 195 people who were evacuated to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. They ended their 14-day quarantine period on Tuesday.
“My family, I really can’t wait to be reunited with them, I just want to give them big hugs,” Esther Tebeka said through a video phone interview.
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Haim, her husband of 17 years, documented the long drive onto the base as he picked his family up. The moment he saw his wife for the first time in two weeks, he was emotional. “My heart dropped. Thank God I saw them, they were healthy, they were smiling,” he said.
Tebeka said while she will be back in the Bay Area, her fears are not yet over.
“I hope people don’t receive us as the walking dead,” said Tebeka. “The reality is I was never infected. The whole flight of people, our flight, nobody’s test result came out positive. So everybody’s negative.”
Tebeka and her daughter 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.
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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 U.S.
“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 U.S. 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.
Tebeka said the meals and accommodations weren’t luxurious at March AFB, but they were comfortable and free. Tebeka’s Jewish faith means she has to eat Kosher foods and so she tapped into a worldwide network of rabbis for help.
“Just absolutely amazing support. So thank you to all of these people,” said Haim Tebeka. “I am very thankful to God for keeping them safe, to the U.S. government for getting involved very quickly, really efficiently, for evacuating them, taking care of them.”
The first thing the Tebekas did after leaving quarantine was find a Kosher Chinese restaurant. Esther Tebeka says she’s moved by the little things after the quarantine and is eternally grateful for the U.S. government’s response. She says life is beautiful and that “everything feels alive.”
“Nothing comes random in life in our religion, in our belief. So if I got out, it was meant to be. So I don’t think I cheated death, but I would consider myself as one that is very lucky, very blessed,” she said.
But Tebeka is far from the only one who has concerns with how their return home will be received.
One woman said they have been sent discouraging messages from outsiders. She is among the thousands onboard the Princess Diamond, which is docked on the coast of Japan after dozens tested positive for the virus. The passengers are also being quarantined.
“We’ve gotten a lot of heat on this online and emails…people telling us not to come home,” the cruise ship passenger said.
Health experts have said, however, those under quarantine are being isolated longer than the incubation period for the coronavirus.
“I think that people should be very calm about people coming back,” said Stanford Professor of Pediatrics and Infectious Diseases Yvonne Maldonado. “I think if anything, people should be especially not concerned about these people coming back, because they know that they’ve been very thoroughly screened and tested multiple times.”
Still, Tebeka said she’d like others to be comfortable with their return home.
“I told my husband, if people really show any sign of being uncomfortable around me, then I might just quarantine myself at home for another half week or week or so,” Tebeka said. “Just to give people the peace of mind.”
KPIX 5’s Kiet Do and Maria Medina contributed to this report.