Out of the blue: quarantined Vietnamese worker recalls training trip to Wuhan

By Thanh Lam, Tat Dinh   February 9, 2020 | 04:46 pm PT
Out of the blue: quarantined Vietnamese worker recalls training trip to Wuhan
Mai Phuong, 40, one of the eight workers returning from Wuhan on January 17, wears face mask and sits in a quarantine room at Tam Dao medical center in Vinh Phuc Province. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.
It was not an easy choice for Mai Phuong, with a husband and two small children at home, but she said yes.

Her affirmative response came during a job interview last October with the Japan-headquartered Nihon Plast Company, when asked if she was willing to train in China for more than two months.

After she agreed, Phuong, 40, became one of the early employees of the company and was one of eight Vietnamese colleagues sent to train in Wuhan City, Hubei Province.

She is still shocked at what has happened since, with the city becoming the epicenter of the new, deadly pneumonia virus (2019-nCoV) outbreak, and even more shocking, she and her colleagues would be at the heart of the epidemic back home.

So far six of her eight colleagues who returned from Wuhan have tested positive and she herself is awaiting results of tests as she remains quarantined.

Her company is located in Vinh Phuc Province’s Binh Xuyen Industrial Park. The company engages in a wide range of activities including manufacturing and processing synthetic resins, die-cast metal molds and machinery, packaging and electrical components for the amusement industry.

After they were recruited, Phuong and five other colleagues flew to Wuhan on November 1 and two others arrived 15 days later. All eight – seven from Vinh Phuc and one from Thanh Hoa – were conversant with Japanese, but had not known each other earlier.

"Wuhan was very cold at that time. Hail and snow fell thinly," Phuong recalled. Its streets were crowded but clean and full of electric bicycles.

The eight Vietnamese employees didn't have much time to go around the city. They were taken to the factory and stayed in the worker’s dormitory quite far from the center. Two men lived in separate rooms on the first floor, while six women had two rooms on the second floor.

Their work days ran from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. With just two months and too many things to learn, they had to use the weekends to keep learning. During the two months they were there, they visited the supermarket six times to buy fruit and strolled around the park later.

In the factory of about 600 workers, Zhou, a Chinese translator, was their best friend, communicating with them in Japanese.

One day, Zhou told them: "From now on, you must wear face masks to go to the supermarket." He warned the Vietnamese guest workers that Wuhan was "suffering from a pneumonia epidemic."

Masks were part of their daily protective gear, but from that day, the company required disinfection of hands and feet during work and other daily activities. Since Phuong didn’t know any Chinese language, all information she could get from the epidemic was from Zhou.

In December, when Wuhan’s streets were covered white with snow, Phuong went to the supermarket and saw that everyone was wearing face masks.

On January 17, Phuong and her co-workers woke up early in the morning to prepare to leave Wuhan for home. The airport was completely different from when they’d arrived. Airport security officers and health officials checked their body temperature three times – when entering the airport, checking in and before boarding.

"We waited for about two hours to check in, and a lot of people were detained because their body temperature was high," Phuong recalled.

Their group sat in different places on the plane. She doesn’t remember her seat number, only that she had a middle seat with Chinese passengers on either side. Since she did not know the language, they could not communicate much.

The eight Vietnamese workers transited at the Guangzhou airport for about two hours.

"Are you not feeling well?" a friendly French couple asked Phuong after they saw her wearing a mask when checking in for flight CZ8315 from Guangzhou to Hanoi.

Phuong said her group had just left from Wuhan where there was a virus outbreak. The couple smiled and wished the group good health.

It was 11a.m. on January 17. When the Vietnamese group went together, all wearing face masks, they drew a lot of attention. Apart from the two French tourists, they didn't talk to anyone else.

At 3 p.m. on January 17, the company's car picked them up at the airport in Hanoi and took them to their office at the Binh Xuyen industrial park. It was only then that they removed their masks.

From the company, they parted to return home for celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday with their families and friends. Five of the women kept in touch via a chat group on Facebook.

"I had a fever, my chest felt tight. I am already hospitalized, Phuong," wrote Thu Trang, 25, a native of Thanh Hoa, on the night of January 24, the Lunar New Year’s Eve.

Others in the group chat encouraged Trang to remain optimistic and get well soon. Six days later, an ambulance picked Dung, 23, a resident of Binh Xuyen District, one of the six female workers, and took her to the Central Hospital of Tropical Diseases.

Another colleague informed Phuong that Canh, 29, one of the men in the training group, had been hospitalized since January 23.

On January 30, all three workers out of the group of eight returning from Wuhan tested positive for the deadly new coronavirus, becoming the first Vietnamese people to be become infected. The same day, WHO declared the epidemic a global emergency.

Phuong was shocked and automatically isolated herself from her husband and two small children, wearing a mask, as recommended by health ministry.

On February 3, she received news that another two people from the training group had been infected with nCoV. At this time, Phuong and the other two women were mandatorily quarantined at the Tam Dao District health center.

Surprise, surprise

Their friend and interpreter in Wuhan was more than surprised when she heard the news about her Vietnamese colleagues."No one in the factory in China has been infected with the virus," Zhou exclaimed.

When she saw Phuong and others off at the Wuhan airport, Zhou was still eating and talking with them, even drinking water from the same cup as Phuong. All of them exchanged hugs and kisses with her.

Zhou now gets herself updated about Phuong’s health situation every day. The company’s factory in China has stopped production for nearly a month, though no employee has been infected so far.

"We were very careful, we spent very little time outside and I can't understand our being infected with the virus," Phuong said, almost to herself.

On February 3, Trang's health condition stabilized completely and she became the first nCov-infected patient to be discharged.

"I was weak and thin but I recovered and everyone should be optimistic about being released from the hospital and go home to eat lemon with me," Trang texted to the group, enclosing a picture of a large plate of peeled lemon, something the group favored as one back in Wuhan.

Five days in the quarantine room has passed "as slowly as five months" for Phuong and two other female colleagues waiting for the test results.

On Friday night, the health ministry announced that one of the remaining three workers had tested positive for nCoV and was the 13th case in Vietnam.

Nine of the nation's 14 confirmed infections so far have occurred in Vinh Phuc, three in HCMC and one each in Khanh Hoa and Thanh Hoa.

The global death toll has reached 910, with 908 dying in mainland China, one each in the Philippines and Hong Kong.

*The name of the worker has been changed.

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