A Palo Alto mother and daughter returned home Tuesday after spending weeks at the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, and then in quarantine on a U.S. military base in southern California.
Esther Tiferes Tebeka and her 15-year-old daughter, Chaya, were released from their two-week quarantine Tuesday morning, having been cleared by federal and county authorities of any possible infection with the deadly virus, which has killed 1,107 people and sickened more than 43,000 worldwide. The majority of the cases have been in China.
Tebeka and Chaya were first reunited at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County with Haim Tebeka, Tebeka's husband, who drove them back to the Bay Area. The three then reunited with the two younger Tebeka children on Wednesday afternoon outside the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale. The children had been staying with a family friend while Haim Tebeka remained in southern California near his wife and eldest daughter.
Carrying a colorful, handmade "welcome home" sign, Rivka, 13, tearfully embraced her mother and her older sister, whom she hadn't seen for six weeks. Tebeka and Chaya had flown to China on Jan. 1 to visit relatives and tour the country.
Brushing back her own tears, Tebeka said it's been hard for her children to be without their mother for such a long time and to be without their father for 14 days.
"I just feel this must be much more stressful for my daughter. She usually doesn't cry," Tebeka said.
Tebeka's 11-year-old son, Menachem, jumped into her arms.
"Your hair has gotten so long!" she said. "It's been six weeks!"
Tebeka said her visit to her parents in Wuhan became harrowing after the outbreak of the virus, which had jumped from an animal to humans and proliferated rapidly. By Jan. 20, Chinese government officials locked down the city. Essentials such as groceries became scarce as residents emptied store shelves.
She started to worry that "before dying from hunger we could die from something else, God forbid."
It was the first time in China's history that an entire city was locked down, she said. Wuhan is one the most populous city in central China, with a population variously reported as between 8 million and 11 million residents.
The rising panic she saw on social media was as concerning as the virus, she said.
With help from the U.S. Consulate, Tebeka and her daughter were finally able to evacuate to the United States on a converted cargo plane on Jan. 28. The passengers were placed in quarantine to make sure they hadn't contracted the virus, which causes fever, coughing and shortness of breath and, in some cases, leads to pneumonia.
A tired Tebeka said on Tuesday that she had had trouble sleeping, first during their ordeal and then from the excitement of leaving quarantine. Tebeka said she and her daughter were among the first people in quarantine to leave. Dozens of others threw their protective masks in the air in celebration as they boarded buses to take them to the Ontario and Los Angeles International airports.
"It feels really, really free. We were not in jail, but psychologically, knowing you can't move around freely" was hard, she said. "I feel very relieved to see my husband."
Chaya fell asleep as they drove north.
"She wanted to be home. She was so done," Tebeka said. "It was very hard for her 2 a lot tougher than for me. We are grown-ups. There were no kids her age, no Wi-Fi. She was so bored that she took one book — it was a little book for kids, a coloring book — and she was coloring in that."e
On Wednesday, Chaya said that what she went through in Wuhan and afterward was profound.
"There is no such experience that comes even close to fearing for your life, in a sense," she said after being reunited with Rivka and Menachem.
She said that, being home and with her family again, she was feeling a range of emotions: joy, mostly, but also sadness.
"Sadness because a lot of time has been lost. I can only imagine what it was like for them," she said of her younger siblings.
Describing her first glimpse of her mother, Rivka said she was about to cry as she left the school.
"I saw her head above the bushes and I lost it," she said. "I had trouble sleeping. Is that what it feels like to be a grown-up?
"There's no one word to describe seeing your family again. It's such a hurricane of emotions, sadness and joy. ... Joy is the most overpowering, which caused my tears to flow."
During the time her mother, sister and father were gone, Rivka said she became sad and at times a bit depressed. But now, "I felt as if an entire brick wall was lifted off my shoulders."
Tebeka expects their experience will have long-term effects but is grateful for the helping hands that supported her along the way.
"I'm grateful that God watched over us. The U.S. government was so generous, and the Chabad Orthodox Jewish community, they have been there for us. That made it possible to go through this easier," said Tebeka, whose family are Orthodox Jews.
"You appreciate life more. This experience taught me we should not take anything for granted in this life. Even the air we breathe -- even in a literal sense."
Tebeka said she understands that some of her neighbors might be a bit nervous despite the fact that Tebeka and Chaya were cleared of coronavirus. For the most part, Tebeka plans to stay inside for another week to ease any concerns.
There were no cases of coronavirus among the people in quarantine, Riverside County Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser said at a press conference on Tuesday morning.
"I want to make one thing crystal clear. These folks do not have novel coronavirus," he said. A 14-day quarantine exceeds the incubation period for the virus. They were tested for the virus daily and had their temperatures taken twice a day.
"I don't want somebody to be attacked, ostracized or outed for having been part of this quarantine group," he said. "They don't need additional testing; they don't need to be shunned; they don't have novel coronavirus. ... Our work here is done. These people are going home."
The quarantine is the first in the U.S. since 1963. Rear Admiral Dr. Nancy Knight, director of the Division of Global Health Protection with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Tuesday that said she was confident the procedures taken during the quarantine had worked well to protect the public and the evacuees.
During their stay, the evacuees were separated from staff at the air base and stayed in a cordoned-off area where they conducted all of their community activities.
In addition, three people who were not part of Tebeka's group were also quarantined at the base, having come in from Los Angeles International Airport. They were kept separate so as to not mix individuals with different quarantine periods and dates.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.