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Life on a quarantined cruise ship is like ‘Groundhog Day’

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Our journey started out innocuously. My husband Phil and I spent five days in Japan with friends from Crystal River, Fla., before setting out on the Diamond Princess. For two weeks, we enjoyed dances, shows and other cruise activities. We had a lavish dinner on Feb. 3 — escargot, prime rib and creme brulee — and that night put our luggage in the hallway so crew members could offload our bags more easily the next morning.

We then heard that a passenger who had disembarked in Hong Kong had tested positive for the new virus edging its way out of China. The captain announced that there might be delays with disembarking and that passengers needed to be tested. The ship entered the port of Yokohama, and a phalanx of quarantine officers boarded. Our temperatures would be checked, we were told, because elevated temperatures are an early sign of infection.

We slept fitfully. The next morning, the captain, in his mellifluous Italian accent, announced that passengers could have breakfast as usual and then return to their cabins. Examining a ship full of people would take time; they estimated it would be at least 24 additional hours. We could roam the ship, we were told. We did, but opted to avoid the crowded buffet.

I grabbed some fruit and desserts for our stateroom, not knowing how else to stock up on food. That night, there were no instructions to put out our luggage. The next morning, the captain announced that a 14-day quarantine had been imposed and said we were not allowed to leave our rooms. Six hours later, a steward brought a meager breakfast of two yogurt cups, two bottles of water and two scoops of fruit salad.

The luxury cruise was over. We were prisoners in a posh penitentiary.

The days since have slipped into one another. The captain’s voice has become wearier as he relays the grim statistics: 10 new cases of infection, another 10, 41. A total of 64, then 135, then 218. With each new infection, I become more anxious. Our ship gets daily bulletins from the U.S. Consulate in Tokyo, but no one offers what we most need: a jailbreak.

I am 75, and my husband is 77. With my insulin supply dwindling, I tried to order more through the ship but got nowhere for a week. Luckily, our phones and Internet work, and a doctor friend in Florida shipped a refill to our floating penitentiary. After delays in customs, my medication reached me on Friday.

So far, my lowest point has not been my medication anxiety but, instead, seeing a bus pull up and fire trucks line up to block media coverage of a partial evacuation. Reports have suggested that men in their 70s are at high risk for infection. There is no telling who is next to be released — or next to fall ill.

After our temperatures were taken on the first day of quarantine, no one checked us for a week. On the fifth day, we were given electronic thermometers and told to report any readings above 99.5. Phil quivers through the interminable wait for the reading that lets him know he’s safe — for now. We have no idea whether people will accurately self-report or possibly try to ride out a fever. We were finally swabbed on Friday and told that results would take three days.

The timing of our test was dictated by our ages. We don’t know why everyone on board, especially the crew, was not tested immediately. Even if testing supplies are expensive, or limited, or both, what other situation are kits reasonably being saved for?

The Japanese government must protect its citizens while also treating all on board this ship ethically. News reports Friday indicated more than 40 new cases just among the 3,500-plus people — passengers and crew — on board the Diamond Princess. Surely quarantining healthy people with sick ones is not the best option for anyone on this ship or on land. Japan has to find a reasonable balance for citizens and visitors alike. If healthy tourists risk exposure through forced quarantines, what might that mean for, say, the Tokyo Olympics this summer? Who will risk sitting in a crowded stadium in Japan, or sending their athletes to compete?

Peering out at the lights of Yokohama, I imagine that some of the twinkling comes from the U.S. military base, with its dock and hospital. Isn’t that considered U.S. soil? A few people have been allowed to leave this ship. Those still stuck here are desperate for everyone on board to be tested so that those who are healthy today will not be infected tomorrow.

February 15, 2020 at 09:01AM By Gay Courter

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