It seemed like the dream retirement vacation: Six months around Asia and Australia, including a stint on Princess Cruises’ luxurious Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Then, on Feb. 3, John, 63, and Melanie Haering, 58, from Tooele, Utah, were readying for bed when they learned the ship would be quarantined for the night. The confinement was extended as people started to come down with coronavirus. Facing a 14-day quarantine that saw hundreds get sick, their vacation of a lifetime turned into a nightmare.
Making matters worse, the two have been separated since Feb. 13, when John became ill, was taken off the ship in Yokohama, Japan, and transported to Chiba University Hospital, where he tested positive for coronavirus. He is one of more than 700 passengers who contracted the virus during the ship’s quarantine, which some officials have said failed.
On Feb. 16, Melanie left Japan on an American charter flight with more than 300 other Diamond Princess evacuees. Since then, she’s been in quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in California.
It’s the longest they’ve spent apart in their eight years of marriage, Melanie told USA TODAY. And there’s a literal ocean separating them.
“We do a lot of crying,” John told USA TODAY Monday. Melanie seconded his sentiment: “I have tears in my eyes now.”
Three days before John was taken off the ship, the night of Feb. 10, Melanie alerted the crew that he was displaying symptoms of coronavirus, as all passengers on the Diamond Princess had been instructed to do. Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties; if the virus worsens, it can develop into pneumonia, kidney failure, severe acute respiratory syndrome or lead to death.
But she said no one responded immediately, and he went untested until after he was taken off the ship.
“Honestly it was really backwards; I called and he had a fever of 104 degrees,” she said. “The person said to me, ‘We’ll put him on the list.’ ”
They had to follow up to get someone to come the next day, John said, and they learned that Princess Cruises was removing 60 other ill passengers from the ship.
The doctors who visited their room didn’t speak English and didn’t do anything to help. They asked what his temperature was and left. “That’s when I told Melanie, ‘We are in this alone.’ “
“So those doctors came in knowing he was ill, did not take his temperature, did not swab him and didn’t test me,” Melanie continued. “We kept asking, ‘Are you going to swab us?’ And he goes, ‘No no no.’ “
Another set of doctors came in hours later, by which time John had developed a rash. Yet he was left in their cabin for another two days as his temperature fluctuated before they came back.
“They came and got me out of my room,” he said, noting that he was given 15 minutes to collect his belongings. “When they got to the room, I was able to give [Melanie] a hug and a kiss, and I couldn’t even look back,” he recalled.
It might seem odd, he understands, that he kissed his wife goodbye when he was ill – but they hadn’t been separated at all, even when it was clear that he was sick.
“I didn’t think anything of it because we kiss all the time and obviously had in our room, so it didn’t even cross either of our minds that maybe we shouldn’t,” he said. “We had been in quarantine for 10 days in a small room, in the same bed, through the worst fever I have ever had, and Melanie was right there, putting wet, cold towels on me for days. It didn’t seem like it would do any harm to kiss her goodbye.”
Weeks later, things are starting to look up. John has now tested negative for coronavirus twice, and on Thursday local time, he left the hospital to stay at a hotel for the night. He was beginning the journey home, but the process of getting there is still murky.
Princess Cruises booked him a hotel room and was working on finding him a flight back to the U.S. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still has to approve of his testing and clear him to fly, he said.
“I think I’m gonna get out of here tomorrow; I think I’m gonna make it out,” he told USA TODAY Thursday after finding out he tested negative a second time. “I’m hoping anyway.”
In quarantine in a Japanese hospital
Aware that it might be a while before he saw his wife again, John called to let Melanie know where he was a few hours after his arrival at the hospital.
Communication was initially difficult due to the lack of an internet connection, but they have since been able to keep in frequent contact thanks to the purchase of a hotspot, which costs $10 per day.
He liked his doctor there; he communicated with all the staff through a translator.
“I think he knows what he is doing,” John said. “But I’ve talked to him in total – out of 10 days – maybe 15 minutes total.”
While in isolation, John didn’t receive much care. There were no pills to take, no vitamins, no procedures. Once a day, his vitals were taken. They hoped his body would fight off the virus.
“They absolutely don’t know how to handle it,” he said. “And I don’t think they’re incompetent by any means.”
As of Monday, he had pneumonia. By Thursday, 50% of the pneumonia cleared up, according to scans. Early in the week he also had a rash and diarrhea.
But the recovery was more than physical.
“Mentally it’s a little tougher; I’m isolated,” John said Monday. “I feel like a pariah a little bit because anyone that comes in my room for any reason is completely masked, gloves, tape.”
Food arrived in boxes through his door. Everything that left his room was placed into a container. He had to do his laundry in the shower.
Meals came regularly, though he said he wasn’t provided with enough food. John is 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds – or did.
“I told them I needed more food – they said I am being fed the same amount that the person who weighs 100 pounds across the hall is being fed,” he explained. “I am losing weight.”
He also wasn’t provided with water, just a cup of tea with each meal. Instead, he had to buy his own. He asked a nurse to buy him some from the convenience store downstairs. He estimates he’s spent about $20 on water since he’s been there.
“It’s not like that at all the other hospitals,” Melanie said. John explained that he has a friend at a hospital in Tokyo whose nurses bring him food and drop it off in his room. He is also allowed to order food for delivery, they said.
John said he would have loved to be taken back to the United States for treatment – but he wasn’t holding out hope.
“I feel that nobody wants me there because of the disease that I contracted,” he said. “And I wholeheartedly understand that, but if they put me in a care facility that I’m not around other people at … the virus doesn’t jump a mile.”
Inside U.S. quarantine
Meanwhile, Melanie is at Travis Air Force Base in California. She waited anxiously Sunday through Wednesday to receive her own coronavirus test results.
She learned her tests were negative on Wednesday afternoon. She hasn’t been told when she can go home yet, however. She is one of the passengers who evacuated the quarantined ship on an American charter flight, which required an additional 14-day quarantine.
“I’m basically in the lap of luxury in comparison to where he’s at,” Melanie said.
She has a full apartment, her laundry is taken care of and she is fed three meals daily. She’s allowed to go outside with a mask on. Her temperature has been taken twice daily throughout the quarantine there.
Coming back to the states was a relief, she said. She is confident that if she contracted the virus, she would receive good medical care here.
“I can’t even tell you how proud I am to be an American,” Melanie said. “A lot of things can be said about the United States, but I’ll tell you what, we do a lot of things right.”
Situation ‘is a big circus’
On Wednesday, John tested negative for coronavirus. But he was not completely out of the woods. He needed to test negative again before he would be allowed to leave. Thursday, he tested negative again. He was clear of the virus.
He still has pneumonia though, which can develop from the virus.
“I don’t know what this virus has done to my health,” he said. “And I don’t want to have any long-lasting effect.”
As of Thursday morning, more than 82,000 people had contracted coronavirus worldwide, and 2,810 had died, according to Johns Hopkins data.
While doctors in Japan told him he didn’t need a follow-up appointment, John said he still plans to see a doctor when he arrives home in the U.S. His doctor in Japan told him that it would be difficult to contract the virus a second time.
While he waited for the results of a CT scan assessing the progression of his pneumonia and his second coronavirus test results, he laid out the aspects that were still in question for USA TODAY in a message:
- Figuring out how to deal with an unknown virus.
- Wondering if the CDC will allow me to go home.
- Not knowing if the damage done by the virus is permanent.
- Not knowing how the details of getting home work.
- Concerned about how the people back home will accept me.
- Still don’t know if my test will come back negative; one positive and we start all over again.
“It really is a big circus,” he said.
And the fact that he and Melanie can’t be there for each other in person made everything harder.
“It’s really hell because we’re so close and we have such a good relationship,” Melanie said. “I always take care of him and make sure he has the best, and he takes care of me and makes sure I have the best.”
It goes beyond their own relationship, too – both are feeling the difference of the quality of life without human touch. Neither of them has had human contact in weeks.
“One of my doctors shook my hand a couple days ago, and I thought ‘Wow, that’s actually human touch.’ Of course, he had two layers of gloves and all taped up,” he said, calling it a “kind gesture.”
How did the virus spread so much?
More than 700 people who had been on board the ship contracted the coronavirus. And Japan’s government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told the USA TODAY Editorial Board and reporters that the original idea to keep people safely quarantined on the ship wasn’t unreasonable. But even with the quarantine process, virus transmission still occurred.
“The quarantine process failed,” Fauci said. “I’d like to sugarcoat it and try to be diplomatic about it, but it failed. People were getting infected on that ship. Something went awry in the process of the quarantining on that ship. I don’t know what it was, but a lot of people got infected on that ship.”
Four people have died who were on board Diamond Princess during the coronavirus quarantine.
Contributing: David Oliver, USA TODAY