Cruise ships passengers’ early encounters with COVID-19 shaped views

Clyde and Renee Smith hold a photograph of their Japanese medical staff that treated them after they tested positive for the coronavirus. The couple is known for their unwavering optimism. They remained hopeful throughout the experience.STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Clyde and Renee Smith hold a photograph of their Japanese medical staff that treated them after they tested positive for the coronavirus. The couple is known for their unwavering optimism. They remained hopeful throughout the experience.STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

When Renee and Clyde Smith boarded a cruise ship in Japan at the beginning of the year, the coronavirus seemed like a distant threat and of little concern to them.

At the time, the new virus was concentrated in Wuhan, China. There were no confirmed cases in the United States.

Renee and Clyde Smith’s adventure on a Diamond Princess cruise ship started out well in January. But their trip took a dramatic turn.CONTRIBUTED
Renee and Clyde Smith’s adventure on a Diamond Princess cruise ship started out well in January. But their trip took a dramatic turn.CONTRIBUTED

But that would soon change. The Decatur couple's adventure took a startling turn in early February when they were instructed to go to Baja Deck 715, a room turned into an on-ship COVID-19 testing site.

Both tested positive for the virus, which swept through the Diamond Princess like wildfire, eventually infecting more than 700 passengers and crew members.

The Smiths say they were lucky: Though both are 80 years old with underlying conditions, they never felt symptoms and were well cared for by the staff at a Tokyo hospital. But they know how serious and how contagious the disease can be.

Here are Renee and Clyde Smith photographed in Japan with nurses who took care of them. They left the hospital on March 3 to head home. Staff moved Renee’s bed into her husband’s room so they could be together.CONTRIBUTED
Here are Renee and Clyde Smith photographed in Japan with nurses who took care of them. They left the hospital on March 3 to head home. Staff moved Renee’s bed into her husband’s room so they could be together.CONTRIBUTED

So, they were surprised when they returned home to the U.S. and encountered some cavalier attitudes about the virus.

Americans on cruise ships were among the first U.S. citizens affected by COVID-19, back in the early days, when the outbreaks had yet to be declared a pandemic. Many passengers were quarantined, both those diagnosed with the disease and those waiting to see if illness would develop. In some cases, they were housed on military bases with armed guards, monitored by crews wearing full protective suits. Meals were dropped off at their doors.

In this file photo, nearly 500 Grand Princess cruise ship passengers are quarantined at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
In this file photo, nearly 500 Grand Princess cruise ship passengers are quarantined at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Those experiences shaped their perspectives on the pandemic, but their views are hardly uniform.

“We have watched with great horror the numbers soar since we’ve come back,” said Renee Smith.

The Smiths, who returned home in early March, feel an obligation to help the experts increase their understanding of the virus. They have donated blood for antibody research at Emory University.

They believe that Georgia reopened too quickly and worry about a resurgence in the coming weeks. They would like to see more aggressive action — such as requiring face masks or coverings when going out in public.

Protective hoods hang from racks at Emory University Hospital during a sterilization cycle using vaporized hydrogen peroxide. Emory is piloting a decontamination program to extend the life of single-use protective gear as hospitals face shortages fighting the coronavirus. SPECIAL TO THE AJC.
Protective hoods hang from racks at Emory University Hospital during a sterilization cycle using vaporized hydrogen peroxide. Emory is piloting a decontamination program to extend the life of single-use protective gear as hospitals face shortages fighting the coronavirus. SPECIAL TO THE AJC.

June and Len Brooks agree that the public needs to exercise more caution. They, too, have seen the havoc wreaked by COVID-19.

ExploreCOMPLETE COVERAGE: Everything you need to know about coronavirus in Georgia 

Better prepared

The Brookses, of Cullman, Alabama, were among the passengers on a Grand Princess cruise to Hawaii in February. When passengers started showing symptoms of COVID-19, several hundred were sent military bases for a 14-day quarantine period. The Brookses ended up at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

The couple, who tested negative, were required to adhere to strict guidelines at the base – they couldn’t leave their small apartment unless they wore masks and practiced social distancing.

Their only contact with their son, Lee Brooks, an attorney who lives in Kennesaw, were texts and phone calls.

By the time they returned home on March 25, wearing face masks and keeping a healthy distance from others were ingrained, said June Brooks, a retired attorney in her 60s.

The two were stunned that they rarely saw others doing the same, not even at grocery stores.

Their ordeal, they said, helped them be better prepared to cope with the pandemic. Nowadays, they stay in their house as much as possible.

“I really think if we had been home when the pandemic started, it would have been harder to make the change,” said June Brooks.

Gail Egan can’t help thinking that maybe there’s been too much change. She went through a similar experience as the Brookses, but came out of it believing many places in the country have, perhaps, overreacted.

A learning experience

Egan, a 62-year-old optician from Homer Glen, Ill., was forced to quarantine 14 days at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. She also was on the Grand Princess cruise to Hawaii.

She described her time there “a good learning experience.”

“It wasn’t all negative and, honestly, I am almost glad I went through it,” said Egan, who is back at home. “I got to see a side of humanity I had never seen before.”

Tents stand on a wharf near the Grand Princess at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif., Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Tents stand on a wharf near the Grand Princess at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif., Monday, March 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Egan tested negative for coronavirus. While at Dobbins, she received homemade cards from people who said they were praying for her and from those who encouraged her to “Be strong.” While quarantine conditions, especially in the beginning, were subpar, they improved after the first few days, she said.

The staff with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also showed kindness, she said. When they heard her joking that it would be nice to have a glass of wine, a staffer went and got her a bottle. Staff later brought her an ice cream sundae.

In Illinois, residents are under a stay-at-home order that has salons, restaurants and many businesses closed. Egan thinks it’s all a bit much.

She criticizes the restrictions as overly cautious and worries about the economic toll.

The Smiths and the Brookses are also concerned about the economy. But they think it’ll be hurt more if the country tries to rush things — there’s still so much unknown about this iteration of the coronavirus.

In this file photo, medical workers, wearing masks to protect against the novel coronavirus, cross the campus of Emory University Hospital Midtown. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
In this file photo, medical workers, wearing masks to protect against the novel coronavirus, cross the campus of Emory University Hospital Midtown. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

‘Still feel lucky’ 

The Smiths learned about the antibody testing by chance. They were walking their dog when they met up with someone who knew that Emory was recruiting research participants.

Antibodies are small proteins created by the immune system in the process of fighting off a disease. They can potentially help a person build immunity to protect against reinfection. The Smiths are now part of cutting-edge research to determine if and when this immunity takes place.

Every day while the Smiths were hospitalized in Tokyo, breakfast was served at 8 a.m., lunch at noon and dinner at about 6 p.m. – highly nutritious meals with cabbage, carrots, miso soup, chicken and fresh fruit. A nurse came in three or four times a day to take their temperature, blood pressure and check on their oxygen levels. They always asked if they felt any symptoms. They never did.
Every day while the Smiths were hospitalized in Tokyo, breakfast was served at 8 a.m., lunch at noon and dinner at about 6 p.m. – highly nutritious meals with cabbage, carrots, miso soup, chicken and fresh fruit. A nurse came in three or four times a day to take their temperature, blood pressure and check on their oxygen levels. They always asked if they felt any symptoms. They never did.

They continue to wear masks whenever they leave the house.

“We still feel lucky that we have never been at all sick,” said Renee Smith.

The couple, known for unwavering optimism, grew close to several of the nurses in Tokyo and have kept in touch with them via email. During their hospital stay, one brought pictures of her family and introduced them to her husband, via Skype. Another made them origami figures. And one of the nurses one gave them cards made by her children. The Japanese government also picked up the cost of their care.

The couple tried to learn a little Japanese during their stay. Renee was able to write her name in Japanese, using the label on her meals.

The Smiths look forward to traveling again, maybe even another cruise.

The same is true for the Brookses. They have tentative plans for a March 2021 cruise to Australia. But they will go only if effective treatment and a vaccine is available.

June and Len Brooks loved taking cruises to travel the globe. Here they are on their latest cruise to Hawaii in February which was cut short by the coronavirus. They were confined to their room on the ship for five days and then flown to San Antonio to go into quarantine for 14 days at Lackland Air Force Base.CONTRIBUTED
June and Len Brooks loved taking cruises to travel the globe. Here they are on their latest cruise to Hawaii in February which was cut short by the coronavirus. They were confined to their room on the ship for five days and then flown to San Antonio to go into quarantine for 14 days at Lackland Air Force Base.CONTRIBUTED

“We may have to cancel. We can be patient,” said June Brooks. “But we love to travel, and there are so many beautiful places to see.”