Barrett’s paradise cruise ends in cornonavirus quarantine
In an exclusive interview with the Blade-Empire, Donna Barrett, of Jamestown, recounts her 29-day journey through a virus terror that has brought the entire world to a level of panic never before seen in the modern era.
It all began innocently enough. "I was excited about the cruise," Barrett said. "I'd never been to Hawaii before. I was really looking forward to the trip."
15 days total, with stops in Hawaii and Ensenada, Mexico. She and her sister flew to San Francisco and boarded the Grand Princess cruise ship on Friday, February 21.
Everybody was excited, happy. 3,500 passengers and crew members mingled together in close contact.
Barrett's first day at sea was peaceful, restful. The weather was perfect; the Pacific Ocean spectacular. For five days she ate sumptuous meals in the many restaurants aboard the ship. She watched movies on the deck; visited with her neighbors in the cabin next door to hers. She even got a massage.
After a leisurely five day voyage, the shop docked in Kauai on Wednesday, February 26, Barrett toured the island on a bus with dozens of other passengers.
On Thursday, February 27, Barrett visited Pearl Harbor, joined another bus tour of Honolulu, and went to a luau on the beach.
Barrett spent Friday, February 28, in Maui. "I learned to ride a Segway and rode it all around the island." For dinner, many of the ship's passengers ate at Bubba Gumps.
Saturday, February 29, was spent on Hilo. She took another bus tour with fellow passengers to Akaka Falls and the Rainbow Falls.
On Sunday, March 1, the ship left Hawaii for a five day voyage to Ensenada. Barrett was having the time of her life. But perhaps Mother Nature was foretelling of the menace to come: this time, back across the Pacific, the seas were extremely rough. Barrett chose to stay in her room for most of the journey.
That decision may have saved her life.
Wednesday, March 4, is a day Barrett will never forget. There was a letter tucked under the door of her cabin. "I read that letter, and I was just stricken with fear. There's no other way to describe it."
COVID-19 - the coronavirus - was aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship. The ship was aborting the rest of its cruise and sailing to San Francisco. All passengers were to stay in their rooms.
The Grand Princess reached the coast of California on Friday, March 6. 21 passengers and crew had tested positive for the coronavirus. The onboard medical facility was overwhelmed.
For three days the Grand Princess circled off the California coast, waiting for permission to dock. On shore, frantic preparations were being made to handle 3,533 passengers and crew.
"We really didn't know what was going on," Barrett said. "All we could do was wait, and worry that we would develop symptoms."
On Monday, March 9, the ship was allowed to dock at the Port of Oakland. The critically ill were evacuated from the ship by medical staff in full biohazard gear. The other passengers remained quarantined in their rooms.
"Food and water was left outside our cabin door, but that was it," Barrett said.
On Wednesday, March 11, Barrett was finally told she would be leaving the ship. "We were told to pack our luggage, and they gave us a red tag #5 to put on luggage and put outside the room to be picked up. We were told to pack what we would need for 24 hours in a carry-on bag to take with us."
The luggage was picked up. Barrett waited in her room for a call that never came. At 9:30 p.m. the captain announced that no one else would be leaving the ship that day. Barrett spent another night in her room.
On Thursday, March 12, around 8:30 a.m., a representative of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) called Barrett's room. "He told us to get down to the dock ASAP because they had a plane ready for us. So we rushed down, and they gave us masks to wear and took our temperature. Then they took us to a bus where we waited for another three hours."
Early in the afternoon, Barrett and several hundred fellow passengers departed for the airport with a police escort. At the airport they boarded a military plane that flew them directly to the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in San Diego, California.
"We landed at 2:30 p.m.," Barrett said, "and boarded another bus with a police escort to a hotel. Everyone we encountered was fully garbed with gowns and masks. We felt like prisoners. There was a fence around the hotel and a big “spotlight” that shone in our room all night long which made it seem like it was daytime out. Armed guards were posted 24/7 outside the hotel."
Barrett was quarantined in her room. Food and water was delivered to her room. "They told us we had to stay in the room for 48 hours, then we could go outside, as long as we wore masks and stayed five-to-six feet apart. The weather was rainy and dreary."
Barrett remembered that there were no cleaning or sanitizing products in her room.
On Saturday, March 14, Barrett was told to forget the previous 48-hour rule and go downstairs to get her food. "We were told to stay six feet apart, which no one really did. It was so unorganized."
Barrett received a call from someone at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, who told her that her luggage was there. "I really felt that maybe we were supposed to go to Texas with our luggage, but accidentally got sent to San Diego instead."
That afternoon everyone quarantined at the hotel had a “Town Hall Conference Call” with members of the HSS Response Team. "They told us a little about what was going on, and then let people ask questions."
On Sunday night, March 15, Barrett received an email from the Kansas Department of Health & Environment (KDHE) that stated a plane would arrive in San Diego on Monday, March 16th, to pick up the Kansas, Nebraska and Minnesota passengers and take them home."
HSS personnel brought clean linens to Barrett's room and took her temperature. "It was the first time anybody took my temperature since I left the ship." Barrett still had no virus symptoms.
Barrett received a call in her room at 8 a.m. on Monday, March 16, and was told a bus was waiting to take her (and other passengers) to the airport.
"Plans and times kept changing, and we were on and off the bus several times before we finally boarded a military plane that flew us to Omaha, Nebraska, where we arrived at 7:40 p.m."
The plane had landed in Omaha to refuel. While on the tarmac, the entire plane suddenly shut down and the emergency lights came on. "They finally came on the radio and told us the batteries had died. We waited on the tarmac for two hours until they fixed it."
At 10:30 p.m., six hours behind schedule, the plane landed at the Kansas City airport. "KDHE had a 15 passenger van and an SUV waiting for us, with an escort of eight police and Kansas Highway Patrol vehicles."
Still having no symptoms, Barrett - the last one off the bus - was delivered to her home in Jamestown at 4 a.m.
Barrett is now - in total - on her 17th day of quarantine, with no virus symptoms.
What began as a voyage to paradise, ended as an almost nightmarish journey that took a toll on Barrett, but her spirit is still strong.
"I want everyone to know that the KDHE really came through for us," she said. "They worked tirelessly to get us back to Kansas, and I am so thankful for their help. I'm just relieved to be home."
Through it all, despite the fear and panic, Barrett says the uncertainty was the worst part of the ordeal. "We just never really had any information. We had no idea what was going on or what would happen to us. We would just suddenly be told what to do and where to go."
Barrett's luggage has still not been returned, and she doubts it ever will.