Tens of thousands of people streamed out of Wuhan by car, train and plane after a 76-day lockdown was lifted Wednesday from the Chinese city where the global coronavirus pandemic began.
The end of the lockdown is a milestone in China's efforts to contain the outbreak of a new coronavirus that sickened more than 80,000 across the country and overwhelmed health systems. Yet another milestone came this week, as the country reported on Tuesday there were no new infection cases for the first time since the outbreak began in late December.
But residents caution Wuhan now must also begin dealing with the deeper, longer-lasting emotional and economic traumas of the outbreak.
The exodus is also prompting fears of a second wave of infections, amid rising suspicions of undercounting of coronavirus-related deaths and concerns over the prevalence of those carrying the virus but showing no symptoms.
A Wuhan doctor specializing in pulmonary and critical care estimated based on recent survey data there may be between 10,000 and 20,000 asymptomatic carriers in the city. But experts from the central Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, most notably Dr. Zhong Nanshan, who has emerged as the figurehead of China's effort to tackle the pandemic, say they do not anticipate asymptomatic carriers will cause a second wave of infections.
End of a long quarantine
Wuhan, a city of 11 million, had been sealed off from the rest of China since Jan. 23 in a drastic attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19. After more than two months of quarantine, joyful but weary travelers flocked to the city's reopened train stations and airport, many to return to jobs put on pause during the outbreak — others to reunite with family.
"I have been preparing for this day for many days," said Victoria Li, while boarding one of the first trains to leave Wuhan's Hankou Station Wednesday morning, destined for the nearby city of Jingzhou. She said she was jubilant to leave Wuhan because she had been separated from her young child during the outbreak.
For others, their moment of departure was bittersweet. Bai Xue, a tourist from the northeastern city of Shenyang, found herself stuck in Wuhan while on vacation. She arrived at the airport at the stroke of midnight Wednesday — well before her mid-afternoon flight.
"To be honest, for the last few days, I have been crying a lot," said Bai, choking up as she recounted her two months in Wuhan. "I cannot tell if they were tears of joy. Finally, I get to go home. It is as if I am escaping purgatory."
During the lockdown, Bai found it challenging to get groceries as she was largely confined indoors and unable to understand the local dialect. But she said she is grateful that neighborhood committee workers helped her deliver face masks and a care package of sweet porridge from home. "Wuhan has seen so much suffering, and we have made it through," she told NPR.
Transportation authorities said 55,000 people had purchased train tickets to leave Thursday and tens of thousands more were expected to leave by car and plane. Only about half the normal, pre-outbreak number of flights were operating on Wednesday. Only three-quarters of seats on planes would be filled, airport authorities said, and train passengers would be seated one seat apart from each other.
Wuhan is still under certain quarantine measures, however. Residential compounds now require everyone to use a government app that tracks any contact with sick patients or travel to a high-risk area before leaving and entering their compounds. Many compounds only allow residents to leave for two hours at a time, unless they are going to work.
The city's economy is also only slowly beginning to come online.
Automakers, which form the largest industry in Hubei, the province where Wuhan is located, reopened their production lines the soonest, some as early as March 11. But businesses that fall under Hubei's "restricted list," which are all entertainment venues, such as movie theaters and gyms, and dine-in restaurants, are ordered to stay shut until the outbreak is officially declared over.
A second wave of infections?
Questions about the accuracy of China's official COVID-19 statistics and rising concern over asymptomatic cases have prompted fears of a second wave of infections as travelers leave Wuhan.
"Just because we have zero new daily cases does not mean we have zero risk," said Yu Yeru, a manager at the Hankou train station in Wuhan on Wednesday.
Amid growing public pressure, China's national health commission began disclosing daily new confirmed asymptomatic cases on April 1 but has not released a total number of such cases since the start of the outbreak.
A pre-print study jointly published by Chinese and American researchers that is awaiting peer review concluded that at least 59%, or more than 15,000, of the 25,000 confirmed Wuhan cases analyzed are "unascertained." That could include asymptomatic carriers and mild-symptom patients who recovered without extensive medical attention.
NPR reported last month that some Wuhan patients, including two who were asymptomatic and previously declared recovered, later tested positive again for the virus, suggesting faulty diagnostic tests may also be missing cases.
While all travelers leaving Wuhan on Wednesday had to demonstrate no previous travel through high-risk areas and no recent contact with sick patients, very few are currently required to take a diagnostic test for the coronavirus.
Afraid that Beijing may see a rise in cases as those stuck in Wuhan rush to return to the capital, the city released a strict daily quota for the number of passengers allowed to enter by car and by train on Wednesday. The estimated 11,000 people who have applied online to travel to Beijing have to wait their turn as only 1,000 are permitted to enter each day.
But for the fortunate ones who managed to depart at the crack of dawn, the excitement to move on was palpable.
"To be honest, I am a little excited. The people of Wuhan suffered so much, so many people died, and we had to stay inside for so long. If you are isolated for so long, you really go crazy," said Li Hao, a Wuhan native taking an early afternoon flight to the city of Chengdu, where he works.
For some, the one silver lining to the emotional trauma of the last two months was spending so much time with family, albeit indoors. "I feel very differently about my family members," Li said. "I was able to accompany them for such a long period of time. That has been the one comfort."