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Jonathan Woolverton looked out from the balcony of a friend’s Shanghai apartment at the deserted streets below, wondering when he’d ever make it back home to Tampa Bay.
After spending years working and traveling in China, Woolverton had never seen the city of more than 24 million people so empty. Public transit had been halted. The bikes, cars and pedestrians that usually lined the streets were gone. The 33-year-old registered nurse was quarantined in an apartment for two weeks while he waited for the Chinese government to return his U.S. passport so he could get home.
Over the next few weeks, he would be flagged for coronavirus exposure across three continents and experience wildly different responses to the pandemic.
“The experience opened my eyes to reality of how immensely different this crisis has been handled," Woolverton said. “It has been a profound learning experience to see how well China put protocols in place.”
Woolverton traveled from China to Spain to London to Tampa, on a long, winding journey to get home amid a growing health crisis. As a registered nurse with a masters degree in public health, he has a unique perspective on how officials in each country approached the outbreak. Woolverton self-quarantined in Shanghai, then again in Madrid before trying to get home to Tampa Bay, where he lives in Apollo Beach.
“The farther west I went, the less and less concerned people seemed to be,” he said.
In January, he left Tampa to take a temporary position teaching English to Chinese residents for a few months. He planned to return before June, when he would begin clinical rotations at a local hospital for his nurse practitioner master’s degree.
Woolverton was no newcomer to China — he’d lived in the country for seven years as an English teacher. He returned to Florida after that long stint to care for his ailing grandparents in Tampa Bay, and during that time, he pursued a career in nursing at Rasmussen College.
“For me, it was an easy job with the chance to travel," Woolverton said about the experience and why he decided to go back in January. “I’d work about 25 hours a week for six months, or that was the goal.”
When he arrived, the Chinese government took his passport for two weeks, which is fairly standard for visa processing. During that time, the coronavirus ballooned across the country. Suddenly there were nurses staffed at every apartment compound in the city of Shanghai, taking residents’ temperature as they entered and left the building. Eventually vouchers were given to residents, allowing them to leave the building only at certain times. Supermarkets required all shoppers to wash or sanitize their hands before entering.
Woolverton called the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for guidance on how he could return home.
“They said there was nothing they could do,” he said. “They told me to take it up with the Chinese government.”
So he hunkered down in the Shanghai apartment with a friend and waited. But he worried for the day he’d finally get to the airport and if he’d be able to make it out. To make matters more complicated, Woolverton has lupus, an autoimmune disease.
“When I take my medications, my immune system is compromised,” he said.
He worried that health officials would misdiagnose a fever from his lupus symptoms as COVID-19, the technical name for the coronavirus. Finally, the day came that his passport was returned. Woolverton took a taxi to the airport, where the car was “sprayed down with disinfectant” before being allowed to enter. His temperature was taken a half-dozen times by officials through the process.
“There were big infrared scanners that light up if you have a fever. Everyone can see,” he said. “Once you get past all the checkpoints there were still doctors and nurses fully gowned-up taking people’s temperatures randomly, which was actually nice to see.”
That experience was vastly different from what Woolverton experienced when he landed in Madrid 14 hours later. Passengers wore masks the entire flight, but tossed them in the trash or in their pocket as they left the plane. This was Feb. 7, before the European Union had mandated quarantine protocols for its countries.
“I was shocked,” Woolverton said. “I refused to take my mask off until I got to where I was staying.”
He stayed in a family friend’s home and chose to self-quarantine for another two weeks, just in case. During this time, he was managing flare ups from lupus.
“I was afraid to take my medication in case I had the virus,” he said. “I went through a rough patch at that time, but I pulled myself through. I stayed busy with a lot of homework and studying.”
On his 16th day in Spain, he returned to the airport in Madrid to board a flight to London.
That’s where “everything really hit the fan,” Woolverton said.
Before he left China, Woolverton said he spoke with the U.S. Embassy to make sure he took all the proper precautions so he could get home without delay.
“I knew the paranoia was going to set in as this spread,” he said. “And I didn’t want to get on a plane directly from China to the U.S. and put myself in a situation where I could actually get the virus.”
Airport officials flagged Woolverton when he arrived and asked him if he had been to China in the last 14 days. He answered no, because it had been 16 days.
“Then all these people surrounded me. It was very dramatic,” he said.
Eventually he was granted access to board the plane. But when his flight landed in London, several airport employees dressed in dark suits approached him in the middle of the terminal.
“They already knew my name and asked me all the same questions I had been asked in Madrid,” he said.
The questions included if he had been quarantined and if he was experiencing symptoms. The conversation was held in the middle of the airside terminal, Woolverton said, which he described as humiliating.
“There was no decorum at all,” he said. “But not once did anyone want to take my temperature or give me a medical exam.”
When he was allowed to board the Norwegian Air flight from the London Gatwick Airport to Tampa International Airport, he was seated in the back of the plane.
“At least if they think I’m disease-infested, I’ll get a whole row to myself,” he said jokingly.
Two other travelers who displayed symptoms of a respiratory infection were eventually seated near him. Woolverton said they’d traveled from Italy.
“These people were showing extreme symptoms,” he said.
When the flight landed in Tampa on Feb. 26, Woolverton was again detained by airport officials. He said he remembered someone examining his passport and then “putting it in a biohazard container.”
He was asked a series of questions about his recent travel, but was never examined by a medical professional.
He said the passengers from Italy were not detained, as far as he knew.
It was days later, while he was watching the local news, that he decided to call the health department in Hillsborough County to ask to be tested. He spoke to a nurse who advised him to self-isolate, which he’d already chosen to do. They explained that they would be in touch with more information, but nearly a week passed and Woolverton said he never heard from them again. He’s never been tested for coronavirus.
“It’s unbelievable to think it’s now March and things are still not in order here,” Woolverton said. “We’ve had months to prepare here and I’ve seen no preparation at all. We’re not taking this seriously enough.”
Woolverton doesn’t feel ill. He’s continuing to study from home and has been applying for jobs — including some temporary health work in Seattle, where the coronavirus death toll has reached 22.
“We can learn a lot from countries like China, who implemented simple measures of prevention fairly easily,” he said. “And I don’t believe the numbers we’re seeing on TV in the U.S. are correct, given how limited our testing resources are. It’s got to be much higher than that.”
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