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Waterford native chronicles coronavirus outbreak from Beijing

Waterford native Julie Wernau, a Wall Street Journal reporter posted in Beijing, traveled from China to France on Tuesday, passing through security after being screened for fever and convincing airport staff to let her keep a half-full bottle of hand sanitizer she had purchased before the coronavirus outbreak.

Everyone on the 11-hour flight wore masks, including the crew, Wernau said during a phone interview Wednesday from her hotel room in Paris. Prior to departure, she signed a form indicating she had not been to the province of Hubei or its capital city of Wuhan, where the virus emerged and whose 11 million citizens are on lockdown.

While other Americans are evacuating China, where officials on Wednesday reported more than 6,000 cases of the coronavirus and 132 deaths, Wernau said she left Beijing because she had previous plans to speak on a panel in Paris. She plans to return to Beijing on Feb. 5.

Wernau, 38, worked for Shore Publishing and The Day from 2003 to 2008. She joined the Wall Street Journal in 2015 following a stint at the Chicago Tribune. She moved to China a year ago to write about one of the largest consumer markets in the world but most recently has been writing about the coronavirus while experiencing the outbreak firsthand.

Her Facebook post on Jan. 25 seemed surreal: "Cases of this mysterious virus doubled overnight," Wernau wrote. "They're locking down cities in China and not letting people out. Building a new hospital in six days. All Chinese New Year plans canceled here in Beijing and the major sites like attractions at the Great Wall and Ming Tombs are shuttered."

Schools closed indefinitely. The government encouraged people to stay home and avoid human contact, but Wernau, who lives within walking distance of her office, said she's purposefully gone to places like the airport and subway to report on the outbreak.

"I've been to places people are trying to avoid, because I'm a reporter," she said.

Before getting on the Beijing subway, Wernau said, passengers are checked for fever by a man in a white protective suit with a thermometer that doesn't touch the forehead but comes close enough to read the temperature.

"There's a lot of temperature checking going on, which is quite odd because this disease doesn't necessarily come with a fever," she said.

Symptoms of coronavirus include coughing, fever and difficulty breathing, according to news reports.

The outbreak occurred at the worst possible time, Wernau said, since millions of Chinese are traveling within the country and abroad for the Lunar New Year, which also is known as Spring Festival. Wernau likened it to the holiday season in the United States and said huge banquets are common.

"There's a couple of things that have made the spread of the coronavirus more rampant that are cultural," Wernau said. "One of those is that, when you eat a meal in China, it's generally shared. You get a big group together, you order tons of dishes and everyone digs into the middle of the table with chopsticks."

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, people started using "serving chopsticks" but SARS is a distant memory, and Wernau said it would be strange to say, "Hey, can you not put your chopsticks in my food?"

Conversely, people in China are accustomed to wearing face masks to protect one another and themselves.

"One of the things I really like about China is there's definitely a sense that you have a responsibility to protect one another," Wernau said. "If I have a cold in the office in China, I wear a mask. I don't come in and sneeze like we do in the U.S."

In Paris, where Wernau said there had been just four cases of coronavirus as of Wednesday, she said Chinese tourists who would normally be shopping for luxury goods are swarming pharmacies to buy masks, hand sanitizer and other health products, such as Vitamin C. Some are trying to delay their return flights to China.

News of the coronavirus outbreak began around Dec. 31, and in Beijing people usually cite Jan. 16 as the day when, all of a sudden, the number of cases doubled overnight. People weren't panicked yet, but they were paying attention and began changing their plans.

Facial masks are common in Beijing, where air pollution is a problem, and Wernau checks her air quality app the way most people look at the weather. "If it's a bad day, there's this weird yellow haze to everything, and you start to feel it in the back of your throat," she said.

But the air quality had improved recently, and before the outbreak Wernau said she had gotten used to not wearing a mask as much.

She wore a black mask last week at an "intense" news conference by Chinese officials, including virologist Gao Fu from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who discovered the coronavirus. She said at one point, the journalists rushed the speaker.

"He was telling people, 'Back away. Don't crowd me. We have a virus here,'" Wernau said. "It was one of those moments where you were like, 'I'm in the middle of something big.'"

She said Gao said some alarming things about how the virus, thought to have first been transmitted from animal to human, has grown more contagious. But he also said there's now a test for the virus and scientists are working on a vaccine and sharing information with the world.

"The Chinese government has gotten a certain amount of praise for the way they handled it," Wernau said. "There's been a lot more transparency and they have moved really quickly. Some would say it's overkill to shut down cities, but it's China and they can do that."

k.florin@theday.com

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