Fear, nervousness, acceptance: life in a quarantine center

By Thanh Lam, Tat Dinh   February 6, 2020 | 08:18 pm PT
The little boy was scared. All of nine years old, he was told he had to be away from home for a fortnight.

In a hospital. And he did not feel sick at all.

At first, he cried. Then he got bored. And then, when he got used to it, he started noticing things and getting a bit bossy.

He would remind the staff that they had not sprayed the area with disinfectant on time.

He knew what he had to eat to get better, and would say: "Tell Dad I want chicken tonight, and a lot of vegetables."

The boy is the youngest of nine patients quarantined in Vinh Phuc Province's Binh Xuyen Medical Center.

All the inmates had come into contact with a person returning from China's Wuhan City last month.

Within the Binh Xuyen District Medical Center, around 40 km from Hanoi, large signs read "Special Quarantine Area."

The emergency ward has been divided into two sections, one for those who want to take tests for acute pneumonia, which is encircled by hundreds of meters of barbed wire.

Nguyen Thi Thanh, 42, is being treated for acute pneumonia inside the center's Department of Infectious Diseases. Her cousin, Pham Dung, 23, tested positive for acute pneumonia caused by the novel coronavirus (nCoV) after she and her co-workers at the Japanese-owned Nihon Plast Company Limited returned to Vietnam after training in Wuhan last month.

Thanh and Dung are two of the 10 people in Vietnam who have tested positive for the nCoV, whose rapid spread saw it declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization.

First detected in Wuhan last December, the virus has now been detected in 28 countries and territories around the world, infecting over 28,000 and killing 815.

If Wuhan is the global epicenter of the 2019-nCoV, Vinh Phuc Province has become Vietnam’s hub for the deadly virus, hosting seven of all confirmed infections in the country so far.

A red sign reads Special Quarantine Area in the Binh Xuyen Districts Medical Center, Vinh Phuc Province, February 5, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

A red sign at the Binh Xuyen District Medical Center, Vinh Phuc Province, reads "Special Quarantine Area." Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Dung first came down with a fever on January 26. Thanh remembers standing at the door of Dung's room and asking her if she was alright, and then, not thinking much of it, returning to the living room. There was no concern in anyone's mind.

Dung's fever went down two days later, and the cousins sat with the family for a karaoke party and sang, chatted and laughed.

Things changed suddenly.

On January 31, an ambulance from Hanoi's National Hospital of Tropical Diseases came to Dung's house. She was later revealed as Vietnam's fourth and Vinh Phuc's first patient with the nCoV infection.

Thanh became Vietnam's 10th case five days later.

Meanwhile, the number of cases globally had ballooned nearly 8,000 to above 20,000.

"I heard something about a disease in China," Thanh says, adding that she neither knew anything about it nor about the fact that her cousin had just returned from Wuhan, ground zero of the outbreak.

Thanh recalls having a slight fever and sore throat after her final day at work at the Binh Xuyen Industrial Complex on January 22 before the Lunar New Year festival.

She carried on as usual, cooking and buying food for the holiday, and did not bother to get medicines.

She said: "My cousin and I met for less than an hour. If my immune system had been good, maybe I might not have caught the disease."

However, she feels lucky, because her symptoms subsided after a week in quarantine and treatment.

Nguyen Minh, 25, is Dung's neighbor. On January 24, the night before Lunar New Year, he, Dung and some other friends hung out for three hours before going to see the fireworks.

Despite knowing that Dung had just returned from Wuhan, Minh let his guard down since she had no symptoms.

The day Dung was taken by ambulance, Minh told his wife to return to her mother's house while he went to the Binh Xuyen Medical Center to get his blood and throat swab samples tested and quarantine himself.

"I was worried because my wife was four months pregnant," he says. Though his tests came back negative, he decided to stay in the center for three more days. Just in case.

An area for treating nCoV patients at the center. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

The ward for treating nCoV patients at the center. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

In a room next door, four young women, all Dung's friends, are also in quarantine. They came to the center on their own on January 31 to be quarantined after discovering Dung was infected.

Tam, one of the four women, says: "On the second day of the Lunar New Year, Dung came to my house then we all went to the Ha Pagoda in Vinh Yen. It was quite crowded. Dung was a little feverish, so I told her to get it checked."

Tam, also a worker at the Binh Xuyen Industrial Complex, was allowed to take a few days off so that her health could be monitored.

Her nine-year-old nephew has also been quarantined at the center since he was at home when Dung dropped in.

At home in the center, he says: "My parents have told me to be good, and to stay here to protect aunt Tam so she gets well soon."

The staff

Sporting a blue protective suit from head to toe, nurse Nguyen Thi Huong, 36, visits the quarantine area once every two hours to check on her patients. Her ears, cheeks and nose are red from the marks of her mask. Despite being provided a mask by the hospital, she bought three more herself.

She says: "It hurts when I wash my face and when I sleep. But I got used to it in a few days; it's work."

She only visited home one time the other week: "Can't be too careful."

Nurse Nguyen Thi Huong, 36, wears a protective suit in the center. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Nurse Nguyen Thi Huong, 36, at the center wears protective clothing. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Of the nine admitted to the center's quarantine area, Thanh's symptoms have subsided, while six have tested negative for the nCoV and the other two are awaiting their test results, Doan Duc Toan, the center's deputy director, says.

The center has 20 beds in the quarantine and has disinfected houses and schools in the area, he adds.

"If the epidemic spreads, we will build another quarantine area with 70 beds."

The Vinh Phuc People's Committee has said it plans to build a field hospital within the Phuc Yen General Hospital and expand it if there are more than 200 patients.

Since the Vietnamese government declared the novel coronavirus outbreak an epidemic, the country has 14 confirmed cases.

The global death toll from the epidemic has risen to 815 – one each in the Philippines and Hong Kong, the rest in mainland China.

*Some names have been changed.

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