Ginger Harper, ’00, takes a selfie with her family before boarding a flight from Beijing, China to Seoul, South Korea, on Jan. 26. Harper said she saw people wearing masks, plastic gloves and sunglasses as protection. Passengers were required to get their temperatures checked before leaving China. (Photo by Harper)

Country Day reacts to coronavirus outbreak; alumna evacuates Beijing

The coronavirus outbreak has been front-page news since its emergence in early January. Around the world, isolations, lockdowns and closures have occurred in an effort to stop the spread of the virus, even in the U.S. Many schools and colleges have already shut down.

And now, so has Country Day. Head of school Lee Thomsen announced in an email on March 13 that “we have every reason to expect that the Country Day community will soon be impacted. In an abundance of caution, as of Monday, March 16, Country Day’s campus will suspend in-person classes and begin online learning for the next three weeks leading up to spring vacation. In early April, we will reassess the needs of our community once again.”

All school events through spring break, which ends on Monday, April 13, have been canceled or postponed indefinitely.

“Beginning this afternoon (March 13), our faculty will begin preparation for conducting distance learning for the next several weeks and beyond, if needed,” Thomsen said in the email. “Next Monday and Tuesday, faculty and staff will prepare and upload lessons, with remote instruction of students commencing on Wednesday, March 18, and running through Friday, April 3.”

Thomsen said in an interview that Country Day was following recommendations of county health officials with this decision. There were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at SCDS as of March 12, according to the school’s website.

“We’re in very close contact with the Sacramento County Health Department and following their recommendations on a local level,” Thomsen said. “We’re just trying to follow the advice and best practices of the CDC, and communicating with other California schools to see if they have advice for ways that they’re going about doing their work.”

While recent news focuses on the global scale, the coronavirus first emerged and hit hardest in China. At SCDS, Chinese students have watched as their families have been isolated and U.S. travel to China has been forbidden. Alumni and their families who live in China, including Ginger Harper, ’00, have also been greatly affected. 

“It’s not just the virus that scares us,” said Harper, who left Beijing on Jan. 26 and returned to the U.S. with her husband and two young children. “It’s that 760 million people are effectively quarantined in their homes. It’s that, despite attempts to keep supermarkets stocked, our friends have noticed a strain on resources. It’s that, if our kids take a fall or need stitches, I don’t feel comfortable going to a hospital there.”

The coronavirus (COVID-19) started in Wuhan, the largest city in central China with a population of over 11 million, and spread to cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. As of March 13, there were 132,567 confirmed cases around the world and 4,947 deaths, according to CNN. Almost 2,100 cases with 48 deaths had occurred in the U.S., The New York Times reported. Thirty-two states, including California, have declared a state of emergency, according to businessinsider.com, to increase the ability to respond to the virus.

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease with flu-like symptoms that spreads by cough or sneeze. It has a 3.4% death rate, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), though this is subject to change.

The virus is less deadly than previous ones such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS, 36% death rate) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS, 9.6% death rate). Already, over 65,000 people have recovered, according to CNN. However, it is more contagious, with an estimated R0 value of 1.4 to 2.5 according to WHO, meaning that it spreads to 1.4 to 2.5 additional people per infection.

A nurse at Qingdao United Family Hospital checks her records of the entries and exits of the hospital. (Photo courtesy of Zhang)

COVID-19 is also much more difficult to contain, as many cases are mild, allowing possible infections to slip past health officials. (However, most infections still come from those with symptoms.) Severe cases are more prevalent in the elderly, especially those with preexisting conditions. Almost no severe cases have been found in children.

Country Day took early precautions against COVID-19, according to Thomsen. In a Friday email on Jan. 31, students were cautioned to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to prevent the flu or coronavirus from spreading, such as washing hands and cleaning surfaces. Custodians also were directed to disinfect surfaces such as bathroom counters thoroughly. 

In another email on Feb. 26, the school addressed the likelihood of a pandemic, as the CDC and WHO had warned was highly likely. CDC guidelines were repeated, including that face masks are not recommended for healthy individuals, due to ineffectiveness and supply concerns. 

On March 4, California declared a state of emergency, further preparing for a possible outbreak, including school shutdowns if necessary. Health officials started moving to “mitigation” of the virus, meaning that “containment” is becoming unrealistic.

On the same day, Thomsen sent an email to parents concerning a lower school parent who had been exposed to a COVID-19 patient in their health work. However, the parent later tested negative for the virus. Thomsen informed parents that the risk to Country Day remained minimal and that custodians had begun focused deep cleaning to prevent spread. 

Librarian Joanne Melinson held a hand-washing party to educate students on March 10. Then came the March 13 announcement.

Other school districts, mainly in Washington (where the coronavirus first spread) and California, also have closed. 

Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) closed its schools after an elementary school student tested positive for the virus. To prevent loss of school days, EGUSD moved its spring break. Some disliked the sudden decision and a perceived lack of consideration for parents and faculty. 

Colleges across the U.S. – including Stanford, Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Davis –  have switched to online classes, and California State University, Sacramento plans do so on March 20, according to its website. 

The National Basketball Association abruptly suspended its season on March 11, minutes before a scheduled Sacramento Kings home game, after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive. 

In response to the early spread of the virus, Thomsen, head of high school Brooke Wells, director of admission and enrollment management Hadley Keefe and international student coordinator Lonna Bloedau met with Chinese students, including senior Shimin Zhang and junior Hermione Xian, on Feb. 3 concerning the virus.

“They advised us against going back to China,” Zhang said before the travel ban. “They also told us to warn them if any of our relatives were coming from China.”

Xian said the instructions were “nothing too useful. Just don’t be stupid.”

According to a Feb. 6 poll, almost all of Country Day’s 11 Chinese high school students said they have been affected by the outbreak in China — specifically, the quarantines.

“Only one member of the family can go out each day and only for one day. The supermarket has a lack of food and supplies, and it’s hard for my family to find food.”

—John Fan

Sophomore John Fan’s family in Changzhou, near Shanghai, has had its neighborhood locked down. 

“They are basically stuck in the village,” Fan said. “Only one member of the family can go out each day and only for one day. The supermarket has a lack of food and supplies, and it’s hard for my family to find food.”

Fan’s spring break also has been affected. 

“I was going to travel back to my family (in) China, but right now I can’t go back,” Fan said. “The Chinese government has banned travel, United Airlines banned all flights to China and the school sent us an official letter to tell us we shouldn’t go back.”

Junior Stephanie Ye’s family, also in Changzhou, has had a similar experience. 

“My family’s OK, but they are just staying at home,” Ye said. “They can’t go to the markets and get fresh food; they just have to get food delivered and use concentrated alcohol with water to clean it. None of them are getting sick; it’s all about the lockdown.”

Xian’s family, who came to the U.S. for Chinese New Year (Jan. 25-Feb. 8), is now unable to return home.

“My grandparents were planning to go back to China, but now they have to postpone it,” Xian said. “Only my father went back, and it affected him the most because all the communities are shut down, so no one can (easily) get in or out. It’s just so inconvenient.”

Zhang said the pandemic “hasn’t affected me just because I’m obviously not in China right now. But in terms of family, my mother works at a hospital in China. Not in the affected regions, but still there.” 

Senior Savannah Rosenzweig said her grandparents were on the coronavirus-stricken Grand Princess cruise ship before being evacuated to Travis Air Force base. They were still in isolation as of March 13.

Harper’s family temporarily moved from Beijing to New York because of the coronavirus.

“My husband and I are teachers at an international school in Beijing,” Harper said. “Around Jan. 19, the news coming out of Wuhan started to scare me. I told my coworkers that I was extremely worried about the virus and that I would leave the country if it got worse. My husband was a little more pragmatic and said he wouldn’t be concerned with leaving unless cities started shutting down transportation. Then Wuhan shut down all trains out of the city, and Beijing shut down intercity bus lines.

“Our first day of Chinese New Year break was spent in our house, with me panicking over 20 people dead and 400 confirmed cases, so small compared to what it is now.”

Harper and her family left China on Jan. 26. 

“We left for Seoul, then New York, with lots of temperature checks and temporary quarantines,” Harper said. “Thus far, we have been jumping from family to family. Our families have been kind, but they don’t have the space for a family of four, and our kids are really struggling with all of the transitions.” 

Harper said her family won’t return to Beijing until housing isolation restrictions are lifted and the U.S. Embassy lowers its travel warning from level four — meaning do not go there, and if you are there, leave.

The quarantines and shutdowns attempt to slow the spread of the virus, allowing hospitals and health officials to better manage cases and avoid being overwhelmed.

Due to the virus’s spread, there has been a backlash in China against the government. 

Staff of the Qingdao United Family Hospital discuss procedures regarding patient treatment. (Photo courtesy of Zhang)

“There are people who are saying that the government can’t do anything useful, and they are trying to cover things up, which is not true,” Zhang said.

According to Zhang, its initial spread was due to a lack of response in Wuhan.

“In the city where the coronavirus broke out, the officials didn’t understand the severity of something like this, and they were a little arrogant,” Zhang said. “They didn’t want to listen to doctors, and then the coronavirus spread.”

Another effect of the pandemic has been a shortage of medical supplies like face masks and hand sanitizer, according to Zhang.

“My mother has mentioned that her hospital has been having problems with getting face masks and hand wipes,” Zhang said, “and it’s the same throughout the country.” 

According to Xian, this has affected the U.S. as well. Xian, Zhang, Ye and Fan have been unable to purchase face masks.

“The price (of face masks) is insanely high right now,” Xian said.

Zhang elaborated.

“Usually it’s about 80 cents,” she said. “Now, I think Amazon’s all out, as well as a lot of the websites usually only visited by hospital officials. Now you can only get them for (around) five or 10 bucks per mask. And it’s a one-time-use thing. I know CVS was out, at least a while ago. So were Walgreens, Target and Walmart.”

Four students – Ye, Xian and sophomores Daisy Zhou and Tina Huang – are holding a  fundraiser to support struggling hospitals in Wuhan.

“(We’re selling) Chinese crafts – some of them are handmade by Stephanie and Tina – to give to Tongji Hospital,” Zhou said.

To purchase these handmade crafts, click here.

Another effect of the coronavirus, according to Zhang and Harper, is the disproportionate fear surrounding it, caused by the strict quarantines and lockdowns.

“(The coronavirus) is not really as dangerous as people think,” Zhang said. “(Officials) are just trying to contain it. It’s kind of annoying how everyone reacts. No one has said anything (xenophobic) to me, but people still worry.

“I wasn’t here on (Feb. 10) because I was feeling dizzy, and I think the school got worried. They called my host parents at around 8:30 a.m.”

Thomsen said Country Day is “trying to monitor a situation that seems to get a lot of press coverage. On the other hand, the typical influenza virus kills thousands of people a year, every year in the United States. That’s probably as real a threat to our health and safety as the coronavirus is or may turn out to be.”

Thomsen said he is concerned about the result of the worldwide pandemic precautions.

 “I worry that, as a country, we might be inflaming anti-Chinese sentiment with forbidding anyone to travel to that part of the world,” Thomsen said.

Originally published in the March 17 edition of the Octagon.