Haining Zhao of Falmouth visited his elderly parents in Shanghai for the Chinese New Year celebration this month and he witnessed surreal scenes as government officials grapple with the growing public health crisis posed by the coronavirus.

Haining Zhao, at his home in Falmouth on Thursday, said he witnessed surreal scenes on a recent visit to his parents in Shanghai. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“People in China were in a panic. People didn’t know what was going on,” Zhao said Thursday.

The outbreak emanated from Wuhan, which is on lockdown, but as the virus has spread, other Chinese cities are being affected and about 15 other cities have had travel and other restrictions on movement. So far, more than 8,100 people worldwide have tested positive for coronavirus, and China has reported 170 deaths.

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus Thursday a global emergency, defined as an “extraordinary event” that must be addressed by countries around the world.

Even so, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention pointed out this week that influenza, which he said has killed 6,000 people nationwide this season, poses a greater risk for most people in the United States.

“Influenza kills more Americans than any other virus,” Dr. Nirav Shah said on Tuesday.

In Maine, concerns about exposure to the coronavirus have prompted travel curtailments not only by individuals with ties to China, but also by secondary schools and colleges that sponsor students or exchange programs. Some Chinese New Year and other cultural events featuring Chinese performers also have been canceled.

There have been only six confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, but because the virus is new and it’s not yet known how dangerous it is, health officials are monitoring it closely. New Hampshire tested two people for possible coronavirus, but the results came back negative.

Coronavirus symptoms are flu-like, such as fever, headache, cough, sore throat and a runny nose. Maine has so far had no coronavirus cases.

Mainers who recently traveled to China are taking steps to protect themselves and avoid exposing others. Zhao said he feels healthy but is staying home for two weeks as a precaution.

At the Chinese Gospel Church of Portland in Cumberland – which has a congregation of about 80 people – a Chinese New Year celebration scheduled for Jan. 25 was canceled for safety reasons, said the church’s deacon, Changbao Li. He said they may cancel a Sunday lunch, also.

Zhao said his parents live in Shanghai, where he spent most of his 10-day visit, but he took a trip to Nanjing to visit other relatives. In Nanjing, a city of 8 million, “almost nobody was in the street, and everyone was wearing masks,” he said.

Temples, parks, theaters and other venues were closed. Travelers taking the subway were required to wear surgical masks.

“Anything that you needed a ticket to was closed,” said Zhao, 56, who lives with his wife, Yilan Zheng, in Falmouth. They belong to the Chinese Gospel Church and have two adult daughters. Zhao, an actuary scientist, immigrated to the United States in 1997.

Zhao said as he was traveling from Nanjing to Shanghai, he saw police stopping cars at checkpoints to take the temperature of occupants.

Wuhan

Ling Liu, a part-time resident of Maine and member of the Chinese Gospel Church, is currently in Wuhan, population 11 million, where she lives for part of the year.

Liu, through a translation by Li, the church deacon, described what life is like right now in Wuhan.

“The living is inconvenient in Wuhan since you cannot go outside. And there is no entertainment in the city, either. Generally, I feel safe personally here since everyone is alert and the situation (is) stable here,” Liu said. “The streets are really empty. Occasionally, some vehicles go through the streets for medical and emergency reasons. There is no public transportation like bus, train, subway, boat and airplanes to leave or go through the city. People were allowed to drive to leave the city several days ago, but not now.”

Liu, who has lived part-time in Maine for about five years in the Sebago Lake region because her daughter went to high school in Maine, said she has mostly been staying at her Wuhan apartment since the outbreak began. Her daughter attends college now in Los Angeles.

“Occasionally I need to go outside for an errand or to do some shopping in nearby supermarkets. And the community may do the shopping for you if you need help or want to be more cautious. The price of grocery is kind of stable, but people prefer to stock up if they can. All medical-related supplies are scarce in Wuhan now. I have spent lot of time in communicating with others with social media, and watching TV. People are creative to gather together virtually for lunch or dinner with (video conferencing).”

Liu said she and her family have not been infected, but people she knows have had the virus or suspect they had the virus.

“They have some similar symptoms as the coronavirus and feel more difficult to breathe compared to flu. Normally they just take some medicine used for flu, drink more water and sweat themselves. They will recover in several days. I just randomly guess that the situation might turn to a good direction around two weeks,” Liu said.

Li, the church deacon, said none of his relatives live in Wuhan, and they have all been spared from the coronavirus. He has a nephew who attends Wuhan University, but all of his classes have been canceled and so he has returned home to wait for classes to begin again.

Maine impacts

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is working closely with the U.S. CDC and Maine hospitals, schools and health facilities to monitor the situation. Hospital patients are being screened across the state for international travel and symptoms of coronavirus.

Meanwhile, influenza cases continue to increase in Maine, with 3,020 confirmed cases through Jan. 25 and 10 deaths.

A performance scheduled for Feb. 13 in Portland by the Shanghai-based GuGu Drum Group has been canceled because of concerns about potential transmission of the virus, Portland Ovations announced.

Schools with international programs or international students are taking precautions.

At Thornton Academy, headmaster Rene Menard sent a letter home to parents on Thursday that said “none of our students have a direct link to Wuhan” during the previous two weeks.

Menard said while “the immediate risk of contracting this virus remains low in the United States” the school’s “international visits are in review and are being postponed or canceled as appropriate.”

At the University of Maine, spokeswoman Margaret Nagle said in an email response to questions that two students’ study plans have been affected by the outbreak.

“UMaine has had two students participating individually in study abroad programs in China – one in Chengdu, one in Shanghai – and we are actively working with their respective program representatives on bringing them back to the U.S. The programs are planning to continue the students’ academic work at an alternative site or online. UMaine is communicating with both the students and program representatives as plans are finalized in the coming days.”

One Bowdoin College student was slated to participate in a study abroad program in China this year through a program with Middlebury College, but the program was suspended, Bowdoin spokesman Doug Cook said.

The Bowdoin student is being shifted to another “off-campus” study program, which will either be in the United States or another country.

 

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