Linda Levell, a retired teacher from Vincennes, Indiana, and her husband, Jim, a semi-retired lawyer, took an Asian cruise to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, that cruise happened to be on the Diamond Princess — the now-infamous luxury ship that docked in Yokohama, near Tokyo, in early February before receiving quarantine orders from the Japanese government on Feb. 4. A passenger who had disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and to stop the possible spread of infection — on and off the boat — passengers were ordered to stay confined to their cabins for 14 days.
It didn’t work: NPR says more than 630 of the 3,700 passengers and crew have tested positive for infection so far, which the BBC says is the largest cluster of the virus outside of mainland China.
According to the CDC, the coronavirus originated in Wuhan City, China. The respiratory disease — in the same family as SARS and MERS — seems to have started in a "large seafood and large animal market." It can range from mild to severe and symptoms include cough, fever and shortness of breath. Symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure. And cases of coronavirus have currently been confirmed in 30 countries from Australia and Sweden to Spain, the United States and Canada. After a 14-day quarantine period, a person is "not considered a risk for spreading the virus to others because they have not developed illness during the incubation period," says the CDC.
Linda, who is — full disclosure — my friend Colleen’s aunt (and someone I think is very fun), has since been evacuated from the Diamond Princess with her husband and is back in the United States. Thankfully, she feels healthy and, considering the circumstances, is in surprisingly high spirits for someone who’s been trapped on a floating sick bay in a foreign country. (Note: This Washington Post story outlines a debate between the U.S. State Department and the CDC about the evacuation.) I reached Aunt Linda by phone to ask her all of my probing questions about quarantine and probably several of the exact same ones multiple media outlets had asked her that day.
Below is a transcription of our conversation, which took place the afternoon of Feb. 20, edited for brevity and clarity. (But it’s still pretty long.)
CityBeat: So where are you guys right now?
Linda Levell: Right now, we are at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. That's where the United States brought us. And we're in quarantine on the base.
CB: And then how many more days are you guys in quarantine?
LL: Today, let's see, I think we have 11 more days. It's a 14-day quarantine.
CB: OK. And are they testing you guys every day for symptoms of coronavirus or anything still?
LL: Yeah. This is what they do: They come twice a day to take our temperature and they monitor us and ask us if we have any symptoms like a cough, difficulty breathing, that kind of thing. They have not given us the virus test yet. Although they told us this week that they would be coming around to offer the test voluntarily. So, we want more information on that. We don't want them just to show up at our door and say, “OK, here's the test.” We've asked them for two days, “What is the test? Why wouldn't we want it? Why would we want it?” Let us make an informed decision here. Don't just walk in and say, “Ok, time to swab ‘ya.”
This is the CDC that's basically running this operation and the people here are doing a wonderful job. But the CDC needs to send more people. They don't have enough help. There's no one to communicate to us what's going on, so we're left here just to eat, sleep and worry.
CB: Do you know how many people are in quarantine with you right now?
LL: I think they bought like maybe 170 here to the base.
CB: What does the actual quarantine look like for you guys at the base? Are you guys in a room or like a tent?
LL: We’re in a room. It's called Air Force Inns so I think it must be a place where families stay when they come and see their military people that are here. And it's comfortable — it’s like a hotel room, maybe kind of like a Hampton Inn. We actually have two rooms: I have a room and then there's a bathroom in between, and then my husband has another room. So we have two bedrooms that are exactly the same with a big screen TV, just like a normal room. It has a mini fridge and a microwave in it. So, it’s fine.
CB: And they have you in separate rooms? Are you guys allowed to be with each other?
LL: Yeah, we're allowed to be with each other. But I think they want us, you know, to be separate maybe as much as we can.
CB: How are they feeding you? Do they just deliver food to you guys?
LL: Yeah, they do.
CB: Is it good food?
LL: No. No, it isn't.
LL: And here's the problem, Maija. They don't get it because most of the people here are older people — I bet some people still have flip phones and things like that. So, they gave us this iPhone, which is fine, and they want us to download an app for a grocery store here and then we are supposedly able to order stuff from there. But I can't seem to get the app to work.
CB: Oh no!
LL: Well, it says, “Put in your Apple ID.”
LL: Yeah, oh yeah, it does. Well, you know what? I'm not sure what my password is.
CB: I barely know my Apple ID or password.
LL: OK, well, there you go. And then it says, “OK, make up a new one.” Are you kidding? Make up a new Apple ID. Just make a random one up? So I've talked to no less than 10 people about this here and they're sorry and they said everybody's having trouble with it. I'm like, OK, because you can order stuff, pre-made stuff, from that grocery store. And you can also get beer and wine, which we’d like to have. But that hasn’t happened.
CB: And there’s no one to help?
LL: The CDC is just interested, I think, in studying us and what we do, and how this virus takes hold, etc. etc. but they need to send a communication team here to communicate with us. And we’ve not been offered counseling. Not that we need it, but people are freaking out here because you just sit in your room all day. And you don't get any kind of information. We heard two people were taken away yesterday in an ambulance… So when they came last night to take our temperature I said, “OK, nobody's been around. It's been eight hours since (we) saw that ambulance. What's going on?” And they said, “Oh, well, those were people that were tested in Japan. And we just got the results that they were positive.” And we're like, oh, that's great. They probably sat next to us on the airplane.
So where we are now in this situation is that the CDC people that are here are doing the best they can and they're doing a great job. They need twice as many CDC people here. And they need a communication team of folks here and they need a counseling team of folks here.
CB: Yeah. A lot of them are scientists who are trained to deal with viruses and not necessarily trained to deal with people.
LL: That’s exactly right.
The Wuhan evacuees just got out today and they left to go back to their homes. I just saw it on TV. They were also here on the Air Force base. We didn’t see them, but most of them, I'm assuming, were students. So they were young. They knew how to download these apps. They knew how to do everything. This group of people, we've been on an expensive two-week cruise. And most of these people are senior citizens who are retired. We don't know how to do a lot of this stuff. And we have a lot of experiences and we have a lot of questions. I think there are a lot of highly educated people that were on this cruise and they have questions with no answers so far. It’s very frustrating.
CB: But you guys are feeling good so far?
LL: We feel great and our temperature has been perfect, but they gave us a paper that said we are at “very high risk” for contracting this virus because we were on that ship for so long and it was like a Petri dish. So we have to go through the 14 days because it takes 14 days sometimes for the virus to show up.
CB: My husband, Zac, and I were following the news and when Colleen said you guys were on a cruise in Asia, and then she said you guys had docked in Japan, I didn't believe that you guys were on that ship. And then when she texted (to say you were on the Diamond Princess) I was like, Colleen, there's no way.
LL: We didn’t believe it either. We didn’t either, Maija.
CB: Like I said, we’ve been following this story and we’ve been obsessed. Zac’s family has always taken cruises and now we take cruises. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac. And it’s just like, is there any news? Is she OK?
LL: Yeah, tell him I’m with him. Every cough I make, every sneeze I make, every breath I take, I’m like, “Oh my god, do I have it?” They gave us thermometers over there and I’m constantly taking my temperature to make sure it’s OK. And our temperatures have been fine.
CB: How did you guys end up on the Diamond Princess? I think Colleen said it was for your 50th anniversary?
LL: Yeah. Our 50th anniversary is in June. We should have waited until June to take this cruise and then we wouldn’t have been going… that’s what I told my husband. So we had been to China a few years ago, and we just kind of wanted to see the rest of Asia and thought we would do it while we were still relatively young.
CB: What was the planned route? And where did you actually make it to before you guys were docked (and quarantined) in Yokohama?
LL: We left from Tokyo on, I think it was Jan. 20, from Tokyo, Yokohama and went down to Kagoshima in Japan. Then we went over to Hong Kong and we were in Hong Kong a day. Then we went down to Da Nang and Hanoi and Vietnam and then back up to Taiwan. To Taipei, Taiwan. And then over to Okinawa, in Japan, and then back to Yokohama, to Tokyo.
CB: So when did you guys first hear about the coronavirus?
LL: About four days before the end of the cruise, our tablemates told us that they heard that there had been a man on the cruise that had gotten off in Hong Kong and stayed there. And then he had just tested positive for the coronavirus and we said, “Oh no, we don’t believe that.” And they were like, “Yeah, that’s what we heard.” And we we’re like, “No, no, no.” Well, the next day, the captain came on and said we're going to be delayed because something about — I'm not sure what he told us exactly — but something to that effect, that there had been a person in Hong Kong on the boat, and they kind of wanted to check that out. So he said we're going to be delayed a day so if you're gonna fly back tomorrow, you better call your airlines blah, blah, blah. So we did and we said we won’t rebook, we’re going to figure this out first. And then he came on at six o'clock the next morning and said, “You're confined to your cabins. You can't go anywhere. Japanese authorities have confined you to your cabins for 14 days. You're quarantined.”
CB: That’s a nightmare.
LL: It was a nightmare. I'm like, “Oh my god, Jim.” I mean, it's the scariest thing in the world. And so then that's where we were 14 days. And the problem was that whole ship was quarantined, the crew, too, but the crew didn’t stay. They still brought our food, made our food, did our clothes, you know, they still did everything. Even though they were quarantined, too. The problem was that they were infected and they were passing out food etc., etc. so they infected a lot of passengers. The Japanese authorities should have quarantined them, too. They should have taken them off the ship and into hotels or something because those kids all stayed three and four in a room down there. So when one gets it, another… you know, it's just the way it is. That was a big problem.
CB: I still can’t believe they had everyone quarantined on the ship. I don't know why anyone thought that was a good idea because, No. 1, everyone did have to have food, and so someone had to be delivering food to people. I don't know why they didn't just take you off the ship and put you in some kind of other quarantine situation. On the ship, the percentage of infection is completely insane, even compared to the infection out in the world.
LL: Yeah, it’s like a quarter of the people. And it's because they had those crew members passing out food. And now those crew members are sick. So they should have taken the crew off of the ship. I think we would have been fine staying on the ship in our rooms had the Japanese authorities had someone else come on and deliver our food. Just like they are here. They're making our food somewhere in a mess hall. And these people come in, they're all garbed in the hazmat hats and they deliver our stuff that way. They should have never been doing what they were doing and it wasn't Princess Cruises’ fault. It was the Japanese authorities. They totally mishandled that. That's why so many people have gotten sick.
We've only been off that cruise ship — this is our fourth day off of that cruise ship. Sunday was our last day on the cruise ship. We have to go 14 days. And then we are good to go. We think. However, there have been a few people that are asymptomatic and have no symptoms that have tested positive (for coronavirus). So we're just hoping and praying that that doesn't happen. Each day that goes by that we have no symptoms is better for us. But I'm kind of a hypochondriac and I carry these wet wipes with me and I brought like 20 packs of those on the ship. So I wipe everything down. I always have and I did on the ship, too, even our food on the outside, the food boxes, everything.
CB: So what size was the cabin (on the ship) that you guys were in?
LL: Well, we had a balcony. I mean, they're not that big, but with the balcony, it seems like it's a lot bigger and we could go out on the balcony. We always get a balcony, thank goodness, but we had friends on the ship that had inside rooms. I don't know how they stood that.
CB: On the cruise ship, were you in your room like 24 hours a day?
LL: Yeah, except for the balcony. I would sit out there a lot… The first week, we had to go to sea because they had to make fresh water and do things like that and you have to evidently be at sea to do that. Those days at sea we're kind of (cold) so I couldn't go out on the balcony those days. And then when we came back to the harbor, we were parked the second time on the port side, so then we see all the ambulances. There were always at least 30 ambulances parked out there waiting to take people.
CB: That's kind of like psychological terror, looking at them.
LL: Oh yeah, Maija, there's no question. You’re just like, “Oh my god. Are we going to be next?” You felt like you were on a leper colony or something. It was awful.
CB: Was the United States communicating with you guys while you were on the boat or with Diamond Princess or anything?
LL: I'm sure they were communicating with Diamond Princess and the U.S. Embassy was sending us an email every day telling us that the CDC says you're fine where you are, you should stay where you are. And I called the embassy a couple of times to talk to people near the end of our quarantine on there and I started telling them, "We need to get off this boat, something big is going on, there's too many people getting sick, come and get us out of this place." We are lucky that we know some people that know some people at the state and federal level so they got on the ball and within about three hours, we had a message saying “OK, they're coming to get you. Give us a few hours to get this plan together.” So it took them about a day, maybe a day and a half to bring the plane.
CB: OK. And that was the plane that took the U.S. passengers off?
LL: Right. There were two planes.
CB: And when you guys were on the ship, was Diamond Princess doing anything to try to appease people?
LL: Oh yeah. Princess was wond-er-ful. Princess could not have been better. They refunded our entire trip. They refunded our air. They're paying for air back after this. They’ve said any expenses we've incurred after this, during the quarantine, after the quarantine, when we come back to the States, anything that we incur here, we’re to submit to them and they'll refund it. They gave us a free cruise in the future if we want it. They’ve done everything they could. They were sending us all kinds of candy on Valentine’s Day.
CB: Let’s talk about when you guys were flying home because Colleen was updating all of us about you. And she said you flew from Japan on like a U.S. cargo plane?
LL: It was a cargo plane and that was like nothing I've ever seen before. And these guys were in hazmat suits.
CB: So now you're in Texas. What was the original plan time of the vacation?
LL: Two weeks.
CB: And how much actual time is that going to be that you will have missed?
LL: Well, four weeks at the end of this quarantine, if we aren't in quarantine longer.
CB: Do you guys think you'll ever go on another cruise?
LL: I don't know. I kind of doubt it.
CB: Was any part of the cruise worth it? Like any of the stuff that you got to see before the quarantine?
LL: No, no, no, no, no, absolutely not. No, no, nothing’s worth this at all.
CB: OK. What's the first thing you're doing when you get back to Indiana?
LL: Go see my granddaughter. As soon as I get cleared. That’s it. And see my family. My sister. Come over and see Colleen and my sister, Jan.