Coronavirus Quarantine at US Base: No Booze, Movies or View But 'Safer' Than Cruise Ship

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A pedestrian passes the main gate at Lackland Air Force Base.
A pedestrian passes the main gate at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

When Otis and Carol Menasco of Granite Bay got off the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan where they'd been quarantined for almost two weeks because of the coronavirus, they were led to believe they'd be transported to Travis Air Force base in Fairfield, about 90 minutes from their home outside Sacramento.

A few hours into the flight, they overhead paramedics saying they were going not to Travis but to Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio. Others on the flight were also surprised, Otis Menasco said.

That wasn't the first, or the last, time they had trouble getting straight answers about their plight, which illustrates what Americans might face if an epidemic like the one plaguing China hit the United States.

At Lackland, they began serving a minimum 14-day quarantine on Monday. They're confined to a room much smaller and more primitive than the luxurious cabin they'd had aboard the cruise ship.

They have one phone number to call if they need something in their room, but don't know who to call for information about their situation. The only human contact they have is with the paramedics who come twice a day to take their temperatures. A spokesman for Lackland referred calls to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which did not return multiple requests for comment.

When the Diamond Princess docked in Yokohama on Feb. 3 at the end of their cruise, the Menascos thought they'd be going home the next day. Instead, they were to be held for 14 days because of an outbreak of coronavirus. At least 621 on the ship have become infected.

As the number of cases grew, the U.S. State Department and other agencies chartered two cargo planes to evacuate 338 Americans from the ship to Travis and Lackland. Other Americans previously evacuated from Wuhan, China, were taken to the same bases but held in separate areas. Some of those people were released this week.

The cruise ship evacuation was voluntary, but the U.S. Embassy strongly encouraged passengers to take it, saying their next chance to leave Japan would be March 4 at the earliest.

About 15 buses transported passengers from the ship to the airport. En route to the airport, the government learned that 14 passengers on the buses had tested positive for the coronavirus, but showed no symptoms before boarding.

Before they got on the bus, "they took our passports," Menasco said. When they got to the airport, no one seemed to know which passengers were on which bus, which led to a long delay. People would come onto the Menascos' bus with a handful of passports and call out the names. Some were on that bus, some weren't.

In a press conference, a doctor with the State Department said passengers were removed from the buses "as soon as those buses sort of came to a stop on the tarmac and it was safe to do so."

But the Menascos were on their bus for at least an hour or two, long enough that some people had to be excused to use the restroom, Carol said.

The 14 passengers who tested positive were allowed to board the aircraft, but were seated in a sort of plastic isolation chamber.

On the Menascos' plane, there were 151 people; seven were isolated with positive lab tests and two more were placed in isolation during the flight for fever, according to the State Department briefing.

Otis said the cargo plane was "very, very cold; pretty miserable." There were no bathrooms or sinks on the plane, only portable toilets and hand sanitizer.

By the time they arrived at the barracks in San Antonio early Monday morning, they'd been traveling for 20 hours, 14 on the plane. "The first thing you want to do is take a nap, the second is take a shower," Otis said. But there was only one towel in the room. They requested another, but didn't get one until Monday night.

"We are in a little tiny room, like a studio apartment," Otis said. There's a small refrigerator and microwave, a chest of drawers and a bathroom. They've asked for cleaning supplies and garbage bags, but haven't gotten any yet.

Three times a day, someone knocks on the door and leaves a meal in a brown paper bag on the ground. The food can't compare to the four-course meals they got on the cruise, or even the rice with chicken or beef they got while quarantined in Japan. And there's no booze.

While quarantined on the boat, they could have a bottle of wine and a small bottle of liquor (about a half of a fifth) delivered to their room each day, Menasco said. Originally they could have two of each, but that was cut back "because they said some people were drunk all the time," he said.

At Lackland, the Menascos ordered six bottles of wine from Amazon and were told the shipment could be delivered, but when it got to the base, whoever received it didn't know they could have it or misdirected it, and it was sent back. They reordered it for delivery on Wednesday, but again it was sent back.

On the ship, they had Wi-Fi and movies on demand, but couldn't make phone calls. In Texas, they have a TV and phone service but no movies on demand.

Their one-bedroom cabin on the ship had a private balcony that let them get fresh air while avoiding other passengers. They think that helped them stay healthy. At Lackland, they can go outside in a fenced yard, watched over by security guards. But they're afraid to go out, especially after paramedics told them that four more people were taken to the hospital with possible infection. (Those isolated on the planes were taken to a hospital in Nebraska, not the air bases.)

The Menascos are taking the ordeal in stride and trying not to complain, merely answering questions posed by this columnist. Although the room, the food, the view and the service was better when they were quarantined on the ship, they're glad to be in the United States. "We feel safer here," Otis said, and less likely to become infected.

When they're released, they'll need to find their own way home, at their own expense, the government said.

Fortunately Princess has agreed to pay their plane fare home, refund the entire cost of the cruise and won't charge for anything they used during confinement. It will also give them a certificate good for another cruise, for the same amount, within the next year. The couple already had two cruises planned for the next year; and are debating whether to go.

Otis said his wife "is suffering more than me." She's become quiet and dearly misses her cats, who have been in a boarding facility since they left home on Jan. 17. At least the facility emails them daily pictures of the kitties.

This article is written by Kathleen Pender from San Francisco Chronicle and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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