For Yalies traveling abroad this summer, the danger of H1N1 swine flu virus was little more than an afterthought. But for Dung La ’11, the virus-turned-pandemic brought about a week of cheek swabs, free meals and limitless television watching.
On June 17, La was on a plane bound for Beijing, looking forward to a summer of language study made possible through the Richard U. Light Fellowship program. But unbeknownst to La, a passenger only a few rows away was infected with swine flu, precipitating a series of events that would lead to five days in a quarantine center.
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La’s arrival in China was already tense. Less than a week earlier, the World Health Organization had issued a phase six alert for the H1N1 swine flu virus, marking the influenza as an official pandemic. When La’s plane landed in China, officers in Hazmat suits used infrared temperature guns to check passengers’ temperatures by pointing the guns at their foreheads.
There were three other temperature checkpoints before the passengers could leave the airport, La said. Fellow participant Tasia Smith ’12 said the students found the process to be “pretty silly” and over-the-top. All the passengers were also asked to provide contact information in case someone on the plane was infected with H1N1.
La spent the next two days in the Yanxiang hotel in Beijing, preparing to continue on to the city of Harbin, where he and his classmates would be studying Chinese. But on June 19, La received a chilling phone call from the hotel reception desk, informing him that a nearby passenger on his flight had been quarantined and tested positive for swine flu.
“I had two days of freedom before they came and got me,” La said in an interview Tuesday. “I had no idea what was going to happen.”
Within an hour of receiving the call, a health officer in full Hazmat gear arrived in La’s room to check his temperature and escort him to an ambulance waiting behind the hotel.
“The guy who inspected me was very reassuring,” La said. “After he inspected me and said I would be detained, he explained the quarantine facilities.”
La was escorted through the employee elevator and out the back entrance of the hotel, where two ambulance drivers in Hazmat suits transported him to a hospital.
The quarantine center had previously been a three-star hotel, complete with a large atrium, koi pond and interior pathways. The employees at the hotel had been quarantined after several swine flu cases were found in the hotel, La said, and every so often a tourist would drive to the hotel in order to check in, only to discover that the facility was dedicated for use as a quarantine center.
The day after La arrived he was contacted by an official from Yale’s Light Fellowship office, reassuring him that the University was aware of his situation, that his credit from the summer would still be valid and that Yale would assist in any way possible.
Dean of International Affairs Jane Edwards said that Yale’s protocol for such a case of quarantine is like that in any other emergency, noting that Yale relies on two lines of support, both in the country where the student is traveling and back in New Haven.
“Most of our students have some kind of contact abroad we can make sure they’re in touch with,” she said. “When they contact us, we can ask what that student needs us to do. We take this extremely seriously.”
Light Fellowship Program Director Kelly McLaughlin said the Light Fellowship Program keeps a “continually scrutinized list of approved programs” because it guarantees the best guidance possible in the event of emergency. Edwards added that Yale students are offered medical services and advice through Medex should they confront any medical problems.
Despite Yale’s effort to reach out to La, little could be done to change his situation.
With roughly 200 others at the hotel, La was required to remain inside, where the potentially infected individuals were housed in single rooms. Among the amenities were a mini-fridge restocked daily at no cost, laundry machines, television and daily meals, brought directly to the guests in their rooms to prevent cross-infection. La himself lived in a suite with cable television, wireless Internet and a bed nearly double the width of two full-size beds.
“I slept sideways on it, and I was still too short to fill the bed,” he said.
Yet no amenities could hide the fact that all guests were considered potential harborers of a pandemic-level virus. La said he and other guests had their temperatures checked twice a day following an initial cheek swab upon arrival.
And of course, the specter of the swine flu infection loomed. If a patient tested positive for swine flu, his or her room would be cleaned with a device spraying a “white fog” to sterilize the room, La said.
“It was pretty loud, so any time that happened, everyone on the floor knew that someone got taken,” he said.
Fortunately, La never contracted swine flu and was released from the quarantine center on June 24.
China’s policy toward swine flu quarantine is known for being stringent, especially toward foreign travelers. Still, on July 8, less than two weeks after La was released from quarantine, the Chinese Ministry of Health released new guidelines calling for a suspension of quarantine measures for those who had come in close contact with infected individuals. The U.S. State Department continues to have a warning on its Web site for travelers to China, highlighting reports from Americans that some quarantine conditions may not be adequate or ideal.
Upon leaving the hotel, La received a bouquet of roses, a customary gift given to those released from the quarantine facility.
“We thought it was a nice gesture, but we guessed it was a sign to warn others that you had been quarantined,” he said.