Opening photo: ConGen Wuhan staff discuss luggage handling procedures to U.S. citizen evacuees at the Wuhan International Airport, Jan. 28. Photo by Jamie Fouss
By Russell J. Westergard
By mid-October 2019, the dedicated team at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan knew that the city had been struck by what was thought to be an unusually vicious flu season. The disease worsened in November. When city officials began to close public schools in mid-December to control the spread of the disease, the team passed the word to Embassy Beijing and continued monitoring. The possibility of a new viral outbreak was always on the consulate’s radar. Still, the working assumption in every scenario had always been that, as in past outbreaks like H1N1 (known as swine flu), it would appear in rural areas first and then spread to major urban centers across China.
Photos by Jamie Fouss | Video by Isaac D. Pacheco
When the Chinese government announced on December 29th that the new and novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had been identified and traced to a live animal market near the U.S. consulate, it caught the team’s attention. Four hectic weeks later, ConGen Wuhan closed under ordered departure with the consulate team pulling off what some people involved have since described as a minor miracle. Consulate staff found themselves at the airport of a paralyzed city preparing to evacuate family members and other U.S. citizens from what would turn out to be ground zero of a deadly global pandemic.
Fast forward to the second week in February. As the ConGen Wuhan team, family members, and the rest of the 195 passengers on board that first flight from Wuhan concluded their 14-day quarantine at the March Air Reserve Base (ARB) in Southern California, the joy and a collective sigh of relief were audible.
“I could not have been more proud of what we as a team of consulate staff and families had accomplished,” said Esmeeh Fouss, eligible family member and spouse of Wuhan’s consul general. “We rolled with the punches as plans rapidly changed, and our consulate community was amazing. From the beginning of the crisis, we came together with the attitude that we were in this together and would get through it together. Although my heart was breaking as we left behind dear friends in Wuhan, our can-do attitude followed us to March ARB, where we made new friends and truly helped our fellow Americans.”
During the team’s quarantine at March ARB, the spirit of community bolstered morale with activities such as Zumba, art classes, a tax seminar, boxing, and game nights. The entire camp participated in turning what could have been a difficult and stressful experience into something positive.
“I was incredibly proud of our consulate team as that spirit of flexibility, cohesiveness, and optimism developed in Wuhan transferred to the quarantine camp,” said Consul General Jamie Fouss. “Our team led the way in setting up activities and welcoming everyone to join in. Our dependents and eligible family members really stepped up and were a significant force multiplier throughout the entire process, including the camp where they continued to make a huge difference. By interacting in a friendly and social manner with the entire camp, we expanded from being a consulate community to becoming an American community.”
The community feeling was recognized beyond the quarantine fence line, winning praise from the individuals and organizations responsible for the camp and the care of those under quarantine. No one knew what to expect when Team Wuhan arrived at March ARB, but everyone came together with incredible kindness and professionalism.
“The Centers for Disease Control teams, U.S. Marshals Service and a host of interagency staff, [the] state of California, and local city medical and service teams as well as the March ARB community have been fantastic and more than generous to our group of virus refugees,” said Russell J. Westergard, deputy consular chief of ConGen Wuhan. “Leaving with limited bags and time to prepare, local charities supplied us with everything we could want—from toys, treats, and games for the many children, to outstanding medical care, to the emotional support we needed to decompress from what was a very stressful and even frightening experience.”
The historic significance of being the first U.S. citizens quarantined since 1963 combined with the stress of evacuation is still sinking in for team members, but the memories of the “Wuhan Cohort,” as the group came to be called, will last forever.
“I think I can speak for everyone in the camp in expressing deep appreciation to all involved in the evacuation,” said Westergard. “Every day at 4:30 p.m., the base bugle sounded retreat, and the U.S. flag was slowly lowered at the base flight line operations center within sight of our camp. All activity in the compound stopped, and we faced our flag and placed our hands over our hearts.”
“America is great, life is good, and I felt the twinge of pride that comes from knowing that I am a citizen of the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.”
Russell J. Westergard is deputy consular chief at the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan.