I caught the coronavirus on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that was quarantined outside Yokohama, Japan, for 14 days, at the end of a 16-day cruise I took with my wife, Jeri. When I left the ship several weeks ago, I felt fine. We had checked our temperatures throughout our quarantine, and Jeri and I had gotten a swab test for the virus. Our temperatures were normal; we’d get the swab results back in 48 hours. But our test results had not arrived when we boarded buses for the airport, where two U.S. government planes waited for us.
As we took off from Tokyo, I had a bit of a cough, but I chalked it up to the dry air in the cabin. I felt pretty tired — but who wouldn’t, in our situation? I dozed off.
When I woke up, I had a fever. I made my way to the back of the cargo plane, where Air Force personnel had set up a quarantine area cordoned off with sheets of plastic. They took my temperature. It was over 103 degrees. So I took a seat in the quarantine area and fell asleep again until we touched down in California, at Travis Air Force Base.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came onto the plane and said three of us who had been cordoned off would fly to Omaha (with our spouses, if they wanted to come along). The CDC had a quarantine location at the University of Nebraska’s hospital. We arrived on Feb. 17, greeted by a fleet of emergency vehicles and police cars. Officials put me on a stretcher and wheeled me into an ambulance, which made for a very dramatic scene. I easily could have walked myself, despite my exhaustion.
On the hospital campus, I was put in a biocontainment unit. The space was sealed off, with two double-paned windows that looked out on the hallway, and a large, heavy, insulated door. Two cameras watched me at all times; a set of computer monitors was equipped with microphones, so the medical staff and I could communicate with CDC officials at central command down the hall. The room had last been used during the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
A doctor and nurses reviewed my case with me and took a bunch of lab tests. They wore heavy-duty hazmat suits sealed with duct tape and equipped with motors that helped with air circulation. It looked like something out of “The Andromeda Strain.” When the tests came back a few hours later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that I had the coronavirus. Later, the Tokyo swab confirmed the result — I had caught the virus before I left the ship.
It didn’t scare me too badly. I knew my number was up. The way I saw it, I was going to be stuck in at least 14 more days of quarantine, even if I didn’t have the virus. So many fellow passengers had come down with the illness, including one of my friends, that I’d gotten somewhat used to the idea that I might catch it, too. My wife, however, tested negative and headed to quarantine at a separate facility a few blocks away. After those days being cooped up on the ship together, I think we both relished the alone time; we still could communicate through our phones.
During the first few days, the hospital staff hooked me up to an IV, mostly as a precaution, and used it to administer magnesium and potassium, just to make sure I had plenty of vitamins. Other than that, my treatment consisted of what felt like gallons and gallons of Gatorade — and, when my fever rose above 100 degrees, some ibuprofen. The nurses came to the room every four hours or so, to check my vitals, ask if I needed anything and draw my blood. I got very good at unhooking all the monitors checking my oxygen level, blood pressure and heart rate so I could go to the bathroom or just pace around the room a little, to get my blood flowing. I never quite got the hang of hooking them back up without making a tangled mess. After 10 days, I moved out of biocontainment and into the same facility as Jeri. We had a week of videochatting from our separate quarantines, in neighboring rooms, until she was cleared for release on March 2. She never had the virus, and is now home and back at work at the radio station we run.
As of my most recent test, on Friday, I still have the virus. But by now, I don’t require much medical care. The nurses check my temperature twice a day and draw my blood, because I’ve agreed to participate in a clinical study to try to find a treatment. If I test negative three days in a row, I get to leave.
The time has passed more quickly than I would’ve expected. With my laptop, I get as much work done as I can. I catch up with friends. I walk around my room, trying to take 1,000 more steps each day. I also watch the news. It’s surreal to see everyone panic — news conferences, the stock market’s fall, school closures — about a disease I have. The United States has more than 200 confirmed cases, a number that is likely to rise, but it won’t help anybody if we all panic. The disease seems much more likely to be fatal for older people and those in poor health. I’m relatively fortunate: I’m still younger than the most at-risk groups, and I’m in good shape, giving me less cause for alarm. Others who contract the virus won’t be as lucky. At least seven Diamond Princess passengers have died of the disease, of about 705 passengers who caught it.
Still, coronavirus doesn’t have to be a horrible calamity. Based on my experience, I’d recommend that everyone get a good digital thermometer, just as a comfort tool, so they can reassure themselves if their noses start running.
If you told me when I left home in January that I wouldn’t be back until March — that, instead, I would be confined for more than a month because I’d catch a novel virus at the center of what could become a pandemic — that would have completely freaked me out. But now that it’s happening, I’m just taking it one day at a time.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.
This article has been updated.