CHICAGO -- In China, Ken Zurek of Indiana saw the disruption of the novel coronavirus -- bustling cities turned to ghost towns, businesses shuttered, citizens confined to their homes, a world on pause in fear of a quickly-spreading virus.
"What I just experienced? I never want to experience it here," said Zurek, 63, a concrete business owner who traveled last month to China with his wife, Annie, 60, to visit her family and meet their new baby granddaughter. After learning of the virus and cutting their visit short to return home after 10 days, the Zureks decided to quarantine themselves in their Highland, Ind., home for about two weeks even though they haven't shown any signs of the virus, like fever and cough.
The self-quarantine -- not ordered by health professionals -- is winding down and the Zureks, as well as their family back in China, all have remained healthy, he said.
Ken Zurek said he took the precaution to be extra careful after he saw the devastation of the virus in China. He said he didn't want to be the cause of any illness in the United States. "I didn't want to be the start of that domino effect."
The couple planned to spend about four weeks in China, mostly in Chongqing, where Annie Zurek's family lives and is about 500 miles from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. News of the coronavirus had just begun to break in the United States when the couple arrived in China on Jan. 19, Ken Zurek said, so they didn't know a virus similar to SARS and MERS had started to spread.
Soon after they arrived, they learned of the virus and noticed its effect, he said. At first they saw fewer people on the streets than normal, some wearing face masks. Within a couple days, nearly everyone donned masks and streets that would normally be packed with people shoulder to shoulder, were empty, Zurek said.
"Usually it's like New York City ... people are everywhere," he said. "When you take bus ... you never have a seat on the bus. It's always packed. But we got to see a ghost town, no doubt about it."
Soon the only open businesses in the city were grocery stores and pharmacies, and everyone stayed indoors, Zurek said. Masks were hard to find, but their family had a supply.
While inside, Zurek said he and his wife felt safe, and were happy to spend time with family and their new granddaughter. But they also constantly sought out news sources to read the tally of those infected, as well as those dead from the virus.
"My biggest fear was leaving my safe zone," he said, especially being in the Chongqing airport, which he said could be a route for those headed to or leaving Wuhan, where the virus started.
The couple decided they should leave China while they could, anticipating the United States would eventually restrict or halt flights coming from the country. But the only flight Zurek could find was for early February, which he thought might be too late. And when he'd try to call the airlines, he couldn't get through and the websites would crash, jammed with traffic.
"Every day my wife would tell me, 'We've got to leave early. This is going to get bad,'" he said. Because Annie Zurek is not an American citizen and instead has a green card, she wasn't able to get a flight arranged by the State Department to return to the U.S., Ken Zurek said, and he didn't want to go home without her.
When they woke up the morning of Jan. 29, Zurek said his wife told him to leave while he could, and she would stay behind. "I said, 'No. We came here together; we'll leave together.'"
"This was the only time I was really scared," Zurek added. "At that point I really realized I could die here."
Zurek called his sister, who was staying at the couple's home, watching their cat, and she was able to get through to the airlines and then called him back with the airline representative also on the phone.
The airline representative told him "'if you can get to the airport in two hours, you have the last two seats,'" Zurek said. "We packed so fast."
At the airport, everyone wore masks, he said. Inside the plane, flight attendants and the pilot also donned masks.
Zurek said he didn't see any screening for fever or symptoms once they arrived at O'Hare. "We walked right out the airport exit."
At that point, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already begun screening passengers at several airports, including O'Hare, but only for travelers from areas closer to the epicenter of the outbreak in China.
Zurek said he and his wife continued to wear masks, including during their Uber ride, until they arrived home, and haven't left their home since their return.
He said he contacted state and local health departments in Indiana, and reported where they were in China, and that they have shown no symptoms. Officials told him they didn't need to remain home, but the couple decided to be "overly cautious," Zurek said.
While the CDC has quarantined Americans returning from the epicenter of the outbreak, travelers who have returned from other parts of mainland China and do not show symptoms are advised only to self-monitor and try to limit their contact for 14 days, the virus' incubation period.
Zurek said he and his wife remain healthy but are vigilant about monitoring each other, including their temperature. "Any time one of us do cough, we run up to each other." Thursday marked the 14th day home, but the Zureks added an extra day, just to be "proactive and cautious," he said.
"I read a lot about this virus. I know how it's transmitted. This is just the proper way of doing things, of being safe," Zurek said. "Not only for ourselves, but for the Chicagoland area."
So far there are 13 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, according to public health officials. That includes a Chicago woman who had traveled to Wuhan, and her husband. Health officials have said they are doing well and remain in isolation, and the risk to most Americans remains low.
Worldwide, the illness has sickened more than 43,000 people, and killed more than 1,000, mostly in China, according to the World Health Organization, which has dubbed it a global health emergency.
Zurek said the perspective of being in China during the outbreak has inspired him and his wife to be more proactive about their health, and now they're even more grateful for their overall good health.
"The one good thing I got out of this is that I feel fortunate," he said. "Our new goal is just to make sure we check ourselves out periodically."
And while the self-quarantine has made him stir crazy, Zurek said he was also forced to make some more short-term goals: Completing his 2019 taxes and cleaning out his email inbox.
While the taxes are done, Zurek said his inbox remains a work in progress.
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