An "American Drifter" Code Farmer from Hubei: Being A Suspected COVID-19 Case in The US


The origianl article 一个”美漂”湖北码农:我在美国被怀疑新冠疑似 was from the WeChat Official Account: Sandwiches (ID: china30s), edited by author: Xi Da

Translator: TIAN Xiufang (COVID-19 Readings)

These past few days, sunlight has flooded the Bay Area. On the other side of Pacific Ocean, Wuhan on the Yangtze River is still wet and cold. The weather forecast says that the probability of precipitation today and tomorrow is 50%.

“We returned to the Bay Area from Hubei on January 14th. It has been more than three weeks.” Big J is a software engineer in a high-tech company in the Bay Area, commonly known as a senior “Code Farmer”. His tone was calm, there were few emotional ups and downs, as he peacefully recalled the unforgettable experience for his whole family.

Like many “American Drifter” families, the other family members of Big J are in China. Dual-worker families would save up days for a big vacation every year to return to the home country or take long trips. This year, they rushed back to China before the Christmas holiday, spent a few days in their hometown of Hubei, then went sightseeing in Yunnan. There are so many mountains and lakes to visit in the homeland. As long as there is time, every time we come back, we would take the opportunity to go out and visit. During the week of sightseeing in Yunnan, Big J received messages from a friend, telling him that “pneumonia with unknown causes” appeared in Wuhan. But it’s just an FYI, nothing special. The family returned to Jingzhou on January 4th. Everything seemed peaceful and calm.

Taking advantage of the time, Big J traveled to several cities alone in the next few days, meeting with friends and sightseeing. As a “hard-core” ski enthusiast, Big J also made a special trip to Japan for skiing alone. Dedicated to skiing, Big J belongs to the group who know the dangers of skiing but still love it. He returned to Wuhan on the 13th and stayed there one night. On the 14th, he and his wife along with their two-year-old daughter set off on a flight back to the United States from Wuhan.

Everything went smoothly, and it was a perfect holiday.

Until the fourth day of their return, when changes came in torrents.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a novel coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2) warning on Friday the 17th. On Monday, the 20th, Big J started to feel his uncomfortable in the throat.” Generally, I get sick when I have a sore throat. I don’t know what it is. I think it should be some kind of virus.” On Tuesday, the 21st, “we read the news that the guy in Seattle was sick.” Big J started to have cold and fever symptoms.

“I started to call the Urgent Care in my city from Tuesday. I said I had just returned from Wuhan and I had a cold and a fever. There might be a coronavirus infection. Can you check it?”

“What is coronavirus? Never heard of it.” I can feel the staff’s bewilderment over the phone.” They probably didn’t know what it was at that time. They told me they couldn’t check it and suggested me to consult my family doctor.”

Family doctors are for non-emergency minor illnesses. Generally, they need to an appointment in advance. Big J called and failed to make an appointment with his family doctor. He could only find another family doctor in San Francisco.” They were quite nervous before I arrived, and told me that when I get there they’ll get me a mask and take me directly to the operating room without going to the front desk.” In the end, “He checked my lungs with a stethoscope, telling me that my symptoms were not like the coronavirus infection.” Big J asked, “ Will you check and see what kind of virus it is, common flu or something else?” The doctor rejected the request, saying that it’s not like it and there was no need to check.

Pharmacy shelf empty of masks

“Looking at the first COVID-19 case in Seattle, and based on anecdotal information, our family was likely to have been on the same flight with that guy, because there is no direct flight from Wuhan to Seattle.”

Panic started to settle in, but Big J was still struggling to find an institution to give him a definitive answer.

Being responsible to others, Big J notified his company of his symptoms, and it happened that another colleague was also sick and went to another hospital for examination.

“The reason why I was finally checked was because the hospital my colleague went notified the San Francisco Department of Public Health.” During this period, Big J also tried to call the CDC many times. “Their phone number is very difficult to find, but I finally got in touch with them. An operator read me a long introduction of the novel coronavirus and told us that the disease is highly contagious, so be careful!”

Not sure to laugh or cry, Big J asked if there was any place to test for it?

“Their suggestion is to self-quarantine. They have no place to test and told me to stay at home.”

It was only the beginning of Big J’s worst headache.

Some people on WeChat went from checking in to pressing for information, wondering what virus Big J was infected with. Because in the first week of their return, before the cold symptoms had appeared, Big J and family had a few meals with friends and their children.” With the increase of cases in the news, everyone started to worry.”

Another bomb was also exploding. The department where Big J works sent a short e-mail to employees, saying that a colleague who had just returned from Wuhan was suspected of being a COVID-19 case. It mentioned flu symptoms, but did not tell the employees that the colleague had self-quarantined for a few days, and also didn’t say that the colleague had been tested and found to be infected the influenza A, nor did they mention that the Sars-CoV-2 test was still under way. As the e-mail spread, various internal company WeChat groups’ discussion exploded. People speculated about the content of this ambiguous e-mail, and while the story was being circulated, it seemed to have acquired a faster mutation rate than the virus. “Within an hour, we saw different message screenshots in different WeChat groups, and some guys even started asking me if the person the WeChat groups were talking about was my husband.” Big J’s wife added.

“It’s so ridiculous, no one can tell me where to go for this test. I want to know what I was infected with, and I want to tell my friends as soon as possible, but I didn’t expect the testing procedure to be so unclear and complicated.” Big J needed an answer now more than ever.

Feeling anxious and having to continue to be quarantined at home, while there was still a two-year old child at home, the concern of Big J and his wife gradually grew and swelled into panic and helplessness. “A lot of times, I took the food upstairs to eat, and after I was done I went downstairs, I didn’t know where to wash the dishes. Whether the door handle needed to be wiped? Going downstairs with shoes on, should I wipe the soles of my shoes? (Despite) having been wearing gloves for days, I didn’t dare to touch things at home. My kid would look at me and call daddy, and I dare not hold her.”

Offline anxiety continued to ferment online. Big J recalled, “In this crisis, many aspects of human nature have been magnified. From my experience, I began to know some people just love gossiping, discussing the virus constantly, spreading all kinds of information, valid or not. Many people couldn’t stand it and just quietly left the chat group. There were so many rumors, and so many screenshots, some of which were coded and some were not. It literally was within a few minutes that I would see my own screenshots from different channels.”

A virus has opened the Pandora box of human nature. When we jump out of our WeChat group, the picture is not much different. Countless news stories record the power of this disastrous shock wave. It can even be said that every Chinese family has been affected, only to varying degrees.

Finally, Big J received a notice saying that a nearby county hospital could collect samples in a negative pressure ward. Samples for several suspected cases in the Bay area had been collected there. Big J rushed there immediately. The collection was done on Thursday. Big J pressed the laboratory for testing results everyday. “Helpless, very helpless.” To this day, Big J had not yet responded to many friends’ WeChat messages. “Just not in the mood. Don’t feel like responding.”

Finally, Big J received the result the following Tuesday: negative.

Test Room

Being Tested

Suddenly, as if the dew came, the dust floating in the air could finally adhere to the moisture brought by the dew and fell back to the ground.

As of early February, the CDC had tested 210 suspected samples and 12 cases had been confirmed. The medical system and emergency assistance system in the US are well developed, but still the pain cannot be replaced and cannot be quantified. We can only imagine the dark days experienced by these 200 some families.

During this time, Big J’s wife experienced multi-faceted information overload and emotional challenge. During her husband’s quarantine, she took time off to take care of their child at home. “There was great pressure from public opinions, and there is no time and energy to worry about myself. I really would have broken down if Big J had been confirmed.” The company where Big J’s wife works is Gilead, the pharmaceutical company that makes Remdesivir, which has previously gone viral as a “special drug” for COVID-19. When she saw her company CEO’s statement “patients first”, “I saw hope, but it was also the right thing to do as a businessman.”

Crisis and opportunity often seem to be printed on both sides of a card. After Gilead successfully developed a cure for hepatitis C a few years ago, it experienced Waterloo in the stock market. The reason is simple. The disease is cured and no one needs the medicine any more. At the same time, high-priced drugs have been criticized by society.

“Compared to offering charcoal in the snow, people actually prefer offering icing on the cake,” Big J’s wife continued to explain, “for example, when the doctor sees you, we think it’s as it should be, because this is their job. We don’t care if they are doing the job with their own lives on the line. The pharmaceutical company develops drugs and spends a lot of money, but many people may feel that since you have this medicine, you should give it to us at a low price, otherwise it’s immoral.” While Gilead’s stock market performance has been mediocre in recent years, the crisis has accelerated the progress of Remdesvir’s Phase III clinical trials in China. Perhaps this time Gilead can make a turnaround.

Big J’s family left Hubei before the outbreak in China. The local police stations may have locked in on Hubei cellphone numbers based on the mobile roaming signal. “Now my parents will still regularly receive calls from the police station to have them report their temperatures every day.” Big J’s wife’s family is still in Jingzhou. Her father and mother are quarantined in two separate houses in the metro area, because “Dad has to go to work every day, getting in contact with all kinds of people. He doesn’t want to pass the risk to my Mom.” Big J’s wife’s tone was full of concern and helplessness.

“My old father, who hasn’t been home yet, has been staying up several nights.” Big J’s wife sent a crying emoji. The parents’ worries about children traveling far away are flipped today, and the children began to worry about parents staying at home. Children outside the city watching the father and mother staying inside the city, their love and care turned into tears and fell silently.

The greatest risk is probably with the cousin of Big J’s wife, a nurse at Wuhan Children’s Hospital, who has started to collect nucleic acid specimens at the front line. She was breastfeeding before that. After the closure of Wuhan, public transportation was cut off, and the cousin rode a bike to work. Recently, the cousin has checked into a hotel next to the hospital. In order to reduce the risk of infecting her family, “I haven’t gone home.” Big J’s wife sent a screenshot of her family WeChat group, and all of her families were praising her for being “great and brave”.

On February 5th, a lovely baby was born. Thirty hours later, the baby was confirmed to have been infected with Sars-CoV-2, and it was the first suspected mother-to-child transmission. The hospital where the baby was born was the children’s hospital where Big J’s wife’s cousin worked.

At the end of our conversation, Big J’s wife slowly breathed a sigh of relief, summing up the experience in two words: sadness and anger. During the previous phase of self-quarantine, suffering caused by the rumors allowed her to catch a glimpse of the hurt inflicted upon Hubei people outside of Hubei.” I feel sad for them. I have felt the same, and what my family has experienced is really nothing compared to these people. They’ve been hurt ten thousand times more than us.” In the second phase, after the quarantine, the feeling of pain didn’t completely disappear.” I realized that while I need to maintain my own internal sense of consistency and sense of justice, I also need to protect my family. I used to be overly optimistic, and now I realize I can’t quite achieve that.”

This disaster disrupted not just people’s normal life, many people are no longer who they used to be, and many things cannot be simply returned to the past.