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Man Fights to Get Family Out of China Amid Outbreak

photo of family stranded in china

Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 5, 2020, with news of the family's return to the United States.

Feb. 4, 2020 – "Landed."

The text Ken Burnett had been waiting for for weeks came at 4:26 a.m. Wednesday as he was sleeping at his home in San Diego. His wife, Yanjun Wei, 37, and his children Rowan, 3, and Mia, 1, had finally arrived in the United States. They are among hundreds of others that federal officials are helping to evacuate from China due to the coronavirus outbreak. Burnett's wife and children had been staying with family in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

"At 5 a.m., she texted that they were still on the plane," he says. He sounded relieved but frustrated -- he does not know which of the two California military bases will be the family's final destination to start the mandated 14-day quarantine. The lack of information has been frustrating from the time he began trying to get his family home.

"I just want to hear from her, and know where she is headed,” he says. He was hoping they would arrive at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, closest to their home in San Diego. But they could be ended up at Travis Air Force Base, southwest of Sacramento, an almost 9-hour drive from San Diego Burnett says they all needed treatment for dehydration. .

Burnett, 45, says he is usually a private, quiet guy. But in the last few weeks, trying desperately to get his family home from Wuhan, he can only be described as a dog with a bone.

After countless emails and calls to the U.S. State Department and other officials, he finally got the message from Yanjun on Tuesday morning: She and the kids expected to board a plane for the U.S. in about 3½ hours -- 3 a.m. Wednesday, China time.

It was the third time he has thought they were headed home in the past 2 weeks. But “home” will still have to wait until after the required 14-day quarantine the federal government ordered for all Americans returning from China.

He plans to ask if he can go into quarantine with them, he says, ''knowing the answer is 99.9% no." But, he quickly added, "It's always worth a shot."

The last few weeks have been extremely difficult, says Burnett, who works in business intelligence for a health care system. "It's created a lot of anxiety," he says. "There is the frustration of dealing with the State Department and the embassy." His requests weren't responded to as quickly as he had hoped. And there are the Chinese policies to deal with, such as the need to find their own way to the airport.

As of Feb. 5, 24,611 cases of the novel 2019 coronavirus have been confirmed, according to the World Health Organization. There have been 494 deaths, all but one in China, with one death in the Philippines.

From Family Visit to Nightmare

The family flew to Shanghai in early November. Burnett left to come back to the U.S. to work, and his wife and children went to Wuhan for an extended family visit with her parents. They planned to stay through Lunar New Year festivities on Jan. 25. "She had not been there for the Lunar New Year in 10 years," Burnett says, so she was looking forward to it.

But things began to fall apart days before the holiday, as coronavirus cases began to climb quickly. The novel virus, first  identified in December, started in Wuhan. Fever, coughing, and shortness of breath are the main symptoms.

"I was at work and had heard about the increase in cases," Burnett says. "We were worried.'' On Jan 22, he started looking for flights to get his family home when his wife called to say there was a rumor that transportation would be closed down.

About 40 minutes later, the news hit that transportation was shut down. "It was a bad moment. I kind of slumped in my chair [at work]. I sent a message to her, saying, 'It's in the news.' She asked, 'What do we do now?' I told her to go get water. It was the middle of the night there.''

"It still didn't really hit us," Burnett says. "We thought, it can't completely close down." Soon, they got information about ''special cases'' being let out. They began to call around ''to see how we could become one of these special cases."

While his wife contacted people in China, Burnett reached out to the U.S. Embassy and the State Department. The State Department asked him to resend a request, he says. The first plane carrying U.S. evacuees from China left on Jan. 27 without them on it.

The Burnetts wondered if Wei was not granted permission to be on the flight because she didn’t have citizenship. "The kids are U.S. citizens, born in San Diego," Burnett says. "My wife is not [yet] a citizen." She has her citizenship appointment scheduled for Feb. 19, he says.

A State Department spokeswoman said the agency “has no higher priority than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. The Department of State is working with the U.S. Government Interagency and PRC counterparts on staging additional flights for U.S. citizens to return to the United States from Wuhan. As space is available, seating will be offered to U.S. citizens on a reimbursable basis, to leave from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport to the United States.”

Repeated Calls Pay Off

Then Burnett heard plans for another evacuation flight. He swung back into action, contacting U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris again as well as the State Department.

He says Harris then went to bat for them, and the State Department called. By Saturday, they thought a flight was set, but that was canceled.

Finally, on Monday, they confirmed a flight home, but the good news came with another challenge. "You have to find your own transportation to the airport," Burnett says he was told.

For help, Burnett turned to his lifeline through the ordeal -- a group of about 85 people on WeChat, the social messaging platform, all trying to get loved ones out of China. The leader of that group explained how to reserve a car and a driver.

The Family's Day-to-Day

Burnett said earlier this week his wife was holding up pretty well. "She has gone through different periods of fear and anxiety," he says. And of course both parents have thought about the ''what ifs" -- as in, "What if all the adults got sick?" leaving two young children without caregivers. "Everyone is fine so far," Burnett says.

"Her mom goes out to get food. She wears a mask and scrubs her hands when she returns. The last time she went out, there were no vegetables and she got the last milk."

Hoping for Normal Again

Burnett says  he is totally frustrated and has worked tirelessly to get his family home. Usually, he says, he is very quiet and private. "I only did this because I had to protect my children," he says.

He is already planning for a return to normal, once his wife and kids are home. She will need to reschedule her citizenship appointment, as she will likely still be in quarantine in mid-February. And then, he says, "one of the first things we have to do is a family photo session.'' In looking around for family photos to share, he realized they have few photos of both children together. "We need a family photo session that includes the baby," he says.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on February 04, 2020

Sources

Ken Burnett, 45, San Diego.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: “Secretary Azar Delivers Remarks on Declaration of Public Health Emergency for 2019 Novel Coronavirus,” Jan. 31, 2020; news release Jan. 31, 2020.

CDC: “2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in the U.S.,” updated Feb. 3, 2020.

World Health Organization: “Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Report,” Feb. 4. 2020.

National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China: “Daily briefing on novel coronavirus cases in China,” Feb. 4, 2020.

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