The long saga of the Grand Princess cruise ship ends on Monday morning when officials begin the release of hundreds of frustrated Californians from their 14-day quarantine at Travis Air Force Base.
Seven of the 115 people at Travis who were tested for the COVID-19 virus are confirmed positive and have been moved off the base to special facilities, so they will not be released, an official with the U.S. Centers For Disease Control said on Saturday.
Another 191 are still awaiting test results but will be released because they have completed their quarantine and are no longer considered a risk.
The passengers will be released on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, depending on the day they arrived on the base from the ship. About 120 passengers will be released on Monday, and another 600 passengers on Tuesday.
For the crew still aboard the Grand Princess, the travail continues. On Saturday night, a quarantined male crew member was evacuated by the U.S. Coast Guard for a medical emergency and transferred to Mills Peninsula Mills-Peninsula Medical Center for treatment. The reason for his evacuation was not disclosed.
A total of 37 people — crew and passengers — were infected on the cruise, which in February sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii and back. The virus was introduced to the vessel during a previous cruise to Mexico and back.
The virus that infected the ship — responsible for cases of COVID-19 infection in multiple Bay Area counties — is almost genetically identical to the virus found in Washington State. This suggests, although doesn’t prove, that the ship’s illness may have been inadvertently introduced by a traveler from our neighbor to the north, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor of laboratory medicine at UC San Francisco, who is directing a gene sequence project.
Wearing masks, passengers leaving Travis will be delivered by bus to high-security areas at San Francisco Airport, Sacramento Airport, San Francisco’s Embarcadero, a Fairfield car rental agency and an undisclosed location near the base for pick up by friends and family.
Before departing, they will be screened with a temperature check. The buses will be half empty to allow social distancing.
“I am so looking forward to opening a door without putting a mask on. I want to bake bread. Eat fresh wholesome food. Cuddle with my sweetheart. Play with my dog. Walk around outside,” said Suzanne Suwanda of Los Gatos, who has no symptoms and lives on 8.5 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
While in quarantine, she missed the death of her father-in-law and was unable to offer emotional support.
“There’s no such thing as ‘virtual consolation,’ ” she said. “You need to be there. I wasn’t.”
She also was unable to do the financial paperwork needed to help sustain the family business, because she was without her files, a printer, a scanner or even a stamp to mail a letter. She’s weary of unanswered questions from base officials and the loud pounding on the door — “like in the prison movies” — every time food is delivered.
“I’m just numb,” she said. “It’s been dehumanizing. I have ‘quarantine brain’,” she said.
The experience has been emblematic of the confusion and poor preparedness for a virus that has now infected 15,219 and killed 201 Americans.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseeing the quarantine of passengers, acknowledged “significant logistical challenges that have affected passengers,” in a statement released last week.
Initially, Vice President Mike Pence asserted that authorities would detect every cruise-related infection. “We will be testing everyone on the ship,” he said.
After the 2,000 passengers were sent to Travis and other bases, they were told that testing was not required, but voluntary.
Only about 30 percent, or 306, of nearly 1,000 people at Travis have been tested. Passengers say they declined testing because they were told a “pending” test result would delay their release — and they did not want their release delayed by backlogged laboratories.
Of those 306 people tested, about 60 percent are still awaiting test results, despite assurances that results would arrive in two to three days. They have not been told when to expect an answer.
“We have no control over how they return the results to us,” a Travis representative told passengers on Saturday. The tests are performed by the commercial company LabCorp, with labs in Phoenix, Ariz., North Carolina and New Jersey.
“We have been calling, calling, calling,” the Travis spokesperson said.
Even if test results are still outstanding, state health officials have determined that it is safe for passengers to go home. The state adopted this policy — a reversal of a previous position – because of the new “shelter in place” order. Passengers will be isolating themselves at home.
The untested passengers are not being offered tests prior to their release.
The passengers are returning to a world that has profoundly changed since their departure on Feb. 21.
When they left, the U.S. only had 21 cases; of these, the vast majority were people repatriated from overseas. Now, cases have jumped 700-fold — and almost all are acquired in the community.
“I’m hunkering down, and isolating myself,” said Suwanda. “But it will be such a relief.”