WALDPORT — South county resident Elaine Ferguson arrived in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China, on Jan. 10 for an eagerly anticipated visit with her first grandchild. When she returned home on Jan. 29, she found herself at the forefront of mounting panic over COVID-19.
The outbreak was declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization on Jan. 30.
“I got out just in time,” Ferguson said of her unplanned participation in an historical moment.
Ferguson’s son and daughter-in-law and their new baby live in staff housing at Chengdu Polytechnic University, on a campus about the size of Oregon State University. And while many Americans tend to lump all of China together, Ferguson said Chengdu, China’s fifth largest city at about 10 million, is six or seven hours away — and across a mountain range — from Wuhan, where the coronavirus now known as COVID-19 was first identified.
Ferguson said the coronavirus did not interfere with her travel plans.
“When you visit a newborn, you’re not sightseeing,” she said. “I was there to help the sleep-deprived parents and to sit and hold the baby — that was the purpose of my trip.”
Ferguson’s son teaches English as a Second Language through a program at Chengdu from the University of Staffordshire in England. His mother’s visit occurred just after the term had ended, and the campus was far emptier than usual.
“Most of the students were already gone by the time I got there,” she said. “Most of the buildings were locked up because it was winter break, and many of the small stores around the campus were closed for winter break, too.”
Ferguson said on Jan. 23, guards began enforcing the card lock system at the campus gate, and a few days after she left to come home, she learned a padlock had been placed on the gates, with residents required to call a guard in order to leave.
Her son expected to be back in class on Feb. 27, but caution about the virus kept classes from resuming until March 3, and then only online. As of yet, students have not returned to campus.
Ferguson has not worried about getting sick. Instead, she shares her son’s view that it’s the hysteria surrounding the disease that is scary.
“People are very scared, but in Chengdu, there aren’t many cases,” Ferguson said. “In fact, they’re sending medical personnel from Chengdu to Wuhan to help out.”
Ferguson said everyone wore a mask in Chengdu. And when she went to the airport to fly home, masks were required in the terminal.
“When we went out walking, we wore masks,” she said. “That was before I realized that if you were healthy, masks are not a good idea.”
She added, however, that smog makes the air bad in Chengdu, particularly in winter, and people routinely wear masks.
“The only good thing is the air was cleaner when I was there because the factories were closed,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson wore a mask and used wet wipes on the flight to China, not because she feared the coronavirus but because she didn’t want to risk getting a cold and transmitting it to the baby.
But on the way home — she flew United nonstop into San Francisco from Chengdu — she said everyone wore a mask. And that’s where any prevention ended.
Ferguson was not stopped going through customs, and no one took anyone’s temperature. In Chengdu, she had to fill out a form in English that asked whether she had a fever, had been to Wuhan or had been exposed to the virus. It was barely checked.
“There was no screening before or after we got on and off the plane. We just dispersed throughout the nation,” she said, noting the passenger sitting next to her was connecting to a flight to Boston.
“We were not asked to stay home for two weeks, although I did, mostly because of jet lag,” she said. “No restrictions were put on me whatsoever — no one even talked to us about it.”
When she returned home, however, she was surprised at the reactions of some acquaintances, and she stayed home from a large party because of other people’s discomfort.
Acquaintances’ fear surprised her.
“One of the groups where I volunteer told me not to go to a meeting on Feb. 20 — 22 days after my return — because they were afraid of getting the coronavirus from me,” she said. “And the disease wasn’t rampant anywhere I was.
“The idea that people thought I would go to a public meeting if I could contaminate people made me feel really bad,” she added. “It hurt my feelings a little bit.”
Ferguson contacted a friend who had worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was told to wash her hands really well, keep track of any fever — she had none — and practice good hygiene.
The most important preventive, she emphasized, is to do a little better than basic hygiene — something that works to prevent the flu as well.
A retired educator, Ferguson said she and her husband, who stayed home when she went to China, live a pretty quiet life.
“Like my son said, I’m not worried about the disease, but about the hysteria surrounding it. If people just use common sense,” she concluded, “they will be fine.”