Zhexuan Huang thought he’d be back in Philadelphia by now, hanging out with his University of Pennsylvania friends and taking classes he’d been excited to sign up for this semester.
Instead, he hasn’t left his parents’ house in almost four weeks. He has to wrap himself in plastic just to pick up home grocery deliveries. And every morning, he reports his family’s body temperatures — which, thankfully, have remained normal.
He is stuck in Wuhan, China, his hometown and ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak. His student visa renewal didn’t come back from the consulate in time for a Jan. 12 flight to Philadelphia, and then the epidemic put the city of 11 million, about nine hours west of Shanghai, on lockdown.
“Definitely a little bit disappointed that I won’t be able to take classes at Penn this semester, but … I’ve never felt more connected to Wuhan than I do right now,” said Huang, speaking from his hometown on Friday. “I feel fortunate that I can be with my family during this time, because I can’t imagine if I’m actually in the U.S. studying, having to prepare for exams every night, and not having the chance to talk to my family and be here with them."
Temple University junior Eddie Xu was also in Wuhan for winter break. He made it back to Philadelphia before the outbreak escalated.
But his mind remains on his hometown, so much that he searched for flights, considering returning home to be with his mother and father during the crisis.
“ ‘No, you just stay there, ’” he said his parents told him. “ ‘We are safe and you are safe.’ ”
Huang and Xu are two of thousands of Chinese students attending Philadelphia-area universities who either have seen their studies disrupted or have returned safely to the United States but are worried about family back home. With the world on edge and coronavirus declared a global health emergency, their dual experiences are microcosms of the acute and rippling effect the illness has had on people worldwide.
The new coronavirus is a respiratory illness, with symptoms similar to pneumonia in more severe cases and a potential incubation period of up to 14 days. The virus had sickened more than 31,000 people, most of them in China, and killed 636 as of Friday, according to China’s National Health Commission.
“In the beginning, people didn’t think it was that serious,” said Cindy Chen, a sophomore who returned to Temple from Xian, China, in mid-January. “Then people started dying and students were like ‘Oh my gosh, this is serious.’ But thank God we are all fine.”
No local campuses have reported any cases of coronavirus. No cases have been confirmed in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
Temple, which enrolls more than 1,000 students from China, resumed classes in mid-January and has cleared the two-week incubation period, said spokesperson Ray Betzner.
Princeton, which resumed classes Monday, found 150 students and staff who returned from China to be “low risk” and not required to be quarantined. They were asked to isolate themselves during the assessments, said Michael Hotchkiss, a spokesperson. No one has gotten sick, but a few have chosen to remain isolated and are getting dining and academic support, he said.
Many colleges have already canceled summer programs in China and restricted travel to the country. Like Penn, Princeton and Lehigh have a few students or staff stuck in China. Schools are scrambling to provide support to those on campus and in China.
“We are mindful that this is pretty stressful on the students,” said Cheryl Matherly, vice provost for international affairs at Lehigh University, which has 700 students from China, 19 of them from Wuhan.
Students here are supporting one another, said Chen, vice president for Temple Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Her association, along with others, has postponed its Chinese New Year gala.
“No one in China is celebrating, so we didn’t want to celebrate here,” she said. “We want to stand behind Wuhan.”
Huang, the Penn sophomore, had finished exams on Dec. 19 and flown back to Wuhan three days later. While in China, he went to the U.S. Consulate to renew his visa, figuring he’d save time if he didn’t have to do it back in the states during the semester.
But by Jan. 12, when he was booked to fly back, his visa was still in “administrative processing,” according to the consulate. His story was first reported by Penn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Out of caution, Huang said, that was when his family began staying home — about 10 days before the Chinese government officially imposed travel restrictions on Wuhan. Officials there are now reportedly scrambling to set up hospitals, keep people from leaving, and address a death rate of coronavirus that’s higher in the city than the rest of the country.
Staying home is frustrating, but Huang, who grew up in Wuhan and graduated from Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, is getting used to it. Every day, he takes everyone’s temperature. He spends hours reading the news and talking on the phone to relatives and friends.
“Right now, it’s really hard for us to get food, but fortunately there are several people who are still allowed to deliver,” Huang said. He orders groceries online once a week. When the delivery man comes, Huang or his dad “come downstairs with plastic wraps wrapped around our body and go out and get the food and then come back," he said. “That’s pretty much the only time I go out of my home.”
Because university policy wouldn’t allow Huang to take classes remotely, he had to take a leave of absence for the semester. A mathematical economics major, Huang said he’s been applying to internships in the U.S. and in Shanghai, hoping that the travel restrictions on his city may lift soon. He still plans to graduate in four years by making up classes during the summers, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else that I know in [the] same shoes,” he said.
Xu returned to Temple from Wuhan on Jan. 10, before the seriousness of the outbreak was fully known. Once it became apparent, he said, he mostly isolated himself for 10 days. He only went out for classes, keeping his distance from others.
He didn’t get sick and is well past the virus’ incubation period. No one in his family or any of his friends in Wuhan have gotten sick, he said.
“I stay in contact with my family every day to make sure they are safe,” said Xu, a sports and recreation management major.
He sent 30 sets of masks and gloves to his parents, who remain at home.