Clemson University student studying abroad in China evacuated amidst rising threat of coronavirus

Updated: Feb. 3, 2020 at 7:14 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, S.C. (WIS) - On Monday, the federally mandated two-week quarantine for all Americans arriving from China to the United States took effect.

It’s a response to the coronavirus, which has infected over 17,000 people globally and has killed at least 362 people. It’s been a scramble for many Americans to get flights back to the U.S., including for students in South Carolina studying abroad in China this semester.

Claire Campbell, a Clemson University junior, who was studying abroad in Shanghai, said she arrived safely back to her home here in Lexington on Thursday morning.

Campbell said the last few weeks have been devastating. She said she had been preparing the last three years to study abroad by learning to speak the language, writing essays, and enrolling at Shanghai University. But what she wasn’t prepared for was the coronavirus, which ended her study abroad after three short weeks.

“When I left to go, I was beyond excited,” Campbell said. “This has been the thing I had been looking forward to for three years.”

Campbell said she was ready for the experience of a lifetime when she arrived at Shanghai University on January 4, but a few weeks into her trip, she began receiving warnings from the embassy about the coronavirus.

“There was a lot of safety messages going out: wash your hands, be careful what you touch, and wear your mask when you go outside. And I started realizing this was a bigger thing than I thought it was,” Campbell said.

She said at first she wasn’t too worried because the outbreak started in Wuhan, China, which is over 500 miles from Shanghai. However, about a week later she said the university gave out masks and closed the university gates to only students. Campbell said the metro and malls in Shanghai became empty.

“At this time, I could sit down,” Campbell said. “There was empty subway cars. It was really eerie and just confirmed what was really going on,” Campbell said.

A few days later, Campbell said the students were quarantined to their dorms and only allowed to leave once a day to go to the cafeteria. The program director provided food and snacks for them to eat in their dorms throughout the day. On January 28, Campbell was told she had to evacuate.

“There was a lot of policemen, security guards, and military officials at the airport. Before you were even allowed in, they took your temperature,” Campbell said. “People were spraying disinfectant on their suitcases, on themselves. Everyone was wearing a mask.”

Campbell arrived home on January 30. Her study abroad over.

“I was completely and utterly devastated,” Campbell said. “I haven’t felt that empty in such a long time.”

CDC officials said all travelers from China are given the CDC’s travel health alert notice, educating those travelers what to do if they get sick 14 days after arriving in the U.S.

“It’s a novel disease, which means we’ve never seen anything specifically like it, which means there’s no specific immunity to it, there’s no vaccination for it, so anyone who comes in contact with it is potentially at risk of getting the infection,” said Steve Shelton, the medical director for emergency management at Prisma Health Midlands.

Shelton said the symptoms for coronavirus are similar to the flu, including things like fever, shortness of breath, and a cough.

Campbell said that she is under a 14-day self-quarantine to be on the safe side, even though she doesn’t have any of the symptoms. She said she’s thankful that she was evacuated, but she still thinks about all those who are still there.

“So many people in Wuhan, they can’t leave even if they wanted to and maybe other people in China, they have nowhere to go to so they have to sit and wait it out. So, anytime I was scared, I would just think that I was one of the lucky ones,” Campbell said.

Campbell said right now her self-quarantine means staying at home and getting ready for a very different semester of classes than she originally planned on. She will be taking classes on her computer at her home in Lexington for the rest of the semester, saying it’s too late to enroll in classes at Clemson University.

There have been 11 confirmed cases in the U.S. in California, Arizona, Washington, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

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