SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — As they sat down to dine on Jan. 27, aboard the Diamond Princess luxury cruise ship bound for Japan, Rick and Kathy Wright of Redwood City had two good reasons for a champagne toast.
“We were celebrating our 28th wedding anniversary and we were now celebrating that we were now empty-nesters” Kathy explained.
Their youngest child, Dillon, had just left for college.
“To me it just sounded really romantic and great. That’s the first time in 28 years they haven’t had kids living in the house,” her daughter, Carly Hoffman, told KPIX.
But, in just a few weeks, their dream vacation turned into a nightmare with the arrival of an unknown danger: the novel coronavirus, now designated COVID-19. It was spreading in China and there was an outbreak on their ship.
Since then, the couple has endured two quarantines. Kathy remains sequestered at Travis Air Force base, alone.
On Wednesday evening, paramedics took her husband Rick to a San Francisco hospital.
The bad news came with a knock on the door.
“They were all gowned up and they said ‘we’re very sorry to inform you but your test has come back positive,'” Kathy recalled.
Rick had tested positive for COVID-19. The test was performed in Japan.
“Of course we cried a bit and then gathered his stuff,” Kathy said.
The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak continues to climb.
The second-largest cluster of cases is actually onboard the Diamond Princess.
As of Thursday morning, 634 passengers had tested positive for COVID-19, including Rick.
Kathy is concerned.
“Really, any symptoms that you have scares you. I’m just hoping for the best that I don’t have it,” she said.
Kathy is a registered nurse. She knows how to mitigate infection and contagion. On the cruise ship, she and Rick stayed quarantined in their cabin, washing their own laundry, getting fresh air from a private balcony and taking their own temperatures.
Japanese health officials kept them informed about the outbreak three times a day. Kathy appreciated the frequent updates. She knew, as a nurse, that fear and anxiety is contagious.
But, she said, that would soon change. She said things went awry when U.S. officials began to evacuate U.S. citizens from the Diamond Princess. Twelve days into their 14-day quarantine, they were told they would need to disembark and they would be leaving to go home.
Not all the results from everyone’s tests for the virus had come back and, Kathy remarked, the evacuation quickly turned chaotic.
“As soon as you got off the ship, that’s when everything went crazy,” said Kathy.
Kathy recounted to KPIX how they sat on buses for six hours: four hours off in front of the cruise ship before they traveled 20 minutes to the airport and then two more hours on the tarmac before they boarded the plane. She said they breathed in stagnant air on the buses with passengers who coughed, sneezed and vomited. As a nurse, she was horrified.
“You’re sitting in this petri dish of germs,” she said.
Kathy said she and Rick were initially put on separate planes that would end up at different destinations. They successfully pushed to remain together but Rick’s luggage flew on to Texas. He has yet to get his bags.
On the 10-hour flight home, Kathy noticed not all the passengers wore masks and everyone ate from communal food tables without wearing gloves or masks. Some passengers who boarded the plane learned the results of their tests and discovered they were positive even though they displayed no symptoms. They were sequestered in one area of the plane and separated with a huge tarp. But, Kathy said, everyone used the same restrooms.
That horrified her daughters, who are also nurses. They spoke to KPIX
“Another petri dish that’s much tighter with stagnant air,” remarked Allie. “All these infected passengers,” exclaimed Carly.
Two nights earlier, they spoke to their mom and step-dad Rick, on a Facetime call.
“It’s great that we have modern technology to see them but it will be really relieving to be able to physically see them and touch them,” explained Allie.
“No matter your age you always need your mom. So I can’t wait to see her in two weeks,” added Carly.
As nurses, they could not help but pass on some public health advice: they urged everyone get flu shots.
H1N1 is now circulating in the Bay Area and lots of kids are getting sick from influenza.
Kathy said that she just got swabbed for COVID-19. If the test comes back negative, she gets to go home after her second quarantine is up.
She said the biggest test will come if the new coronavirus takes hold in the U.S. and starts to spread in a sustained fashion within our borders. She is concerned, based on her experience, that the U.S. is not prepared.
“I feel like there is no sense of urgency and people don’t understand how our lives have been disrupted. We have families, we have pets, we have jobs You really feel like a name and a number and that it’s not an urgent thing for the bureaucrats at the top of the CDC,” Kathy said.
KPIX contacted the Centers for Disease Control for a response. The CDC said to contact the U.S. State Department. A State Department spokesperson responded in an e-mail, saying the Department of State has no higher priority than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad and noted how 23 U.S citizens remain on board the Diamond Princess. These passengers, once they disembark, won’t be able to travel to the U.S. for at least 14 days.