By Seth Augenstein
Zhiyong Han, Ph.D., took a plane from Washington, D.C., to Beijing on Jan. 19. His final destination: to be with his parents in Lanzhou for the Chinese New Year on Jan. 25.
Bad timing, he says now.
Amid the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 and the growing headlines, his wife called on Jan. 24, demanding that he return home.
“I said, ‘No, I will spend New Year’s with my parents,'” he said.
“On Jan. 26, I decided to come back,” he quipped.
Dr. Han, professor of medical sciences at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, gave a talk entitled “The COVID-19 Epidemic in China: What I Experienced and Learned,” on March 10 in the auditorium at the Interprofessional Health Sciences (IHS) campus in Nutley. The lecture was part of the IHS Interprofessional Education Research Seminar Series, sponsored by the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, and Seton Hall’s College of Nursing, School of Health and Medical Sciences, and Interprofessional Health Sciences Library.
Registrants, once signed in, were given a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer. The auditorium was full, with over 100 people estimated in attendance and another 60-plus listening in remotely.
Dr. Han told of his experiences from that time of arrival, through his waiting three days in a room in an empty Beijing hotel waiting for a flight. He emerged only to go down to the restaurant to eat, lifting a mask just far enough to fit in a bite of food.
Finally, he booked a flight. Dr. Han took a plane to Incheon in South Korea on Jan. 29, and took another the following day back to the United States. However, he remained self-quarantined in his apartment, with daily temperature and symptom checks from Hackensack Meridian Health professionals. Only after two weeks, on Feb. 17, did Dr. Han return to teach classes at the medical school.
Ultimately, the closest he came to COVID-19 was two hours: he traveled through Lanzhou airport just two hours after two patients who were asymptomatic carriers did.
A general overview of COVID-19’s virology, and the pandemic’s epidemiology, were also presented by Dr. Han.
His takeaway from China’s epidemiological response: what has been called the “draconian” measures of quarantine and locked down of entire cities and regions has actually worked. The measures included searching for “suspects” in Wuhan and Hubei Province by going door-to-door, and public awareness campaigns like a street banner he saw saying, “Those who have fever but do not admit it are class enemies among us.”
“This was the single-biggest public health experiment in human history,” he said. “There were layers and layers of mechanisms in place to make sure no one goes unnoticed. That’s what made it work.”
“People were willing to sacrifice their self-interest for the collective interest,” Dr. Han added.