Students' China Travels Derailed by Quarantine

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Twenty-two high school students from Maryland and the District ventured to Beijing last week to practice Chinese and tour China. But after several of them caught swine flu, the whole group received a crash course in the Chinese health-care system.

On Tuesday, about a third of the group was hospitalized, battling high temperatures and boredom and practicing Chinese with the nurses.

"There's just a little slot in the door that they get food through, but there's food coming in all the time," said Anette McKee. Her 17-year-old daughter, Norine McKee, a student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, was sent to the hospital late last week with a temperature of 103.5 degrees and was later told she had swine flu. "They are being very well taken care of."

The students who are not sick are in quarantine at a hotel and must wear masks to leave rooms.

"For meals theres a buffet where we point to what we want and it is put in a box so we can go eat it in our room," Olivia Alonso, a rising senior at Walt Whitman High School who is staying at the hotel, said in a Facebook message. "They give us things to entertain ourselves with. They gave us all MP3 players and laptops, they also gave us a lot of books in chinese that we can learn with . . . "

Ryan Sherman, who will be a freshman at Walt Whitman, is one of the hospitalized students.

"Ryan Sherman now tested positive for swine flu and is at a hospital in beijing," the 15-year-old's Facebook status read on Monday. Later he updated: "Still at the hospital and no one speaks English."

When the students and their two chaperons arrived in Beijing early last week, everyone was examined by a team of health workers, and one boy was immediately hospitalized because he had a high fever and other flulike symptoms, said Alan Cheung, executive director of the Confucius Institute at Maryland, which organized the trip. The rest of the students were restricted to the dormitories at a language school with other quarantined students from around the world, including a group of Maryland teenagers who are part of a private volleyball league, Alonso said.

When doctors confirmed that the boy had swine flu and other students became sick, the group was moved to a "quarantine hotel" where the students have limited exposure to anyone. The original patient, whom Cheung declined to identify, has been released from the hospital, he said, and the others are improving.

When swine flu first broke out in the spring, China set aggressive quarantine policies for tourists exhibiting fever or other flulike symptoms, as well as people who had traveled with them. In a travel advisory, the State Department reports that although the number of Americans quarantined is low, "the seemingly random nature of the selection process makes it almost impossible to predict when a traveler may be placed into quarantine," which usually lasts about seven days.

In May, 21 students and three teachers from the private Barrie School in Silver Spring were kept in quarantine at a hotel in China for five days over swine flu fears. A fellow passenger on their flight from the United States had a fever.

The students on the current trip and their parents discussed quarantine chances before leaving but "we didn't think it was really a big deal," Cheung said. Once all have recovered, they can either return as scheduled or extend the trip, he said.

Stateside, the parents report bonding through e-mail, sharing information they receive from their children in e-mails, text messages and phone calls. As the students recover, they are sharing fewer fears, their parents say.

Victoria Lord said her son Nicholas Eckenwiler, who will be a senior at Wilson High in the District, has always been fascinated by China. Being quarantined has also been a learning experience. "I told him, 'You'll be able to write a great college essay about this,' " she said.

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