‘Sorry we’re out of soap:’ A couple’s diary of quarantine life at Travis air force base

This article is reprinted from The Guardian:


Retirees David and Denise Morse were celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary with a 15-day trip aboard the Grand Princess cruise liner when 19 crew members and two passengers aboard the ship were diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The original itinerary had the Morses arriving in Ensenada, Mexico, from Hawaii on 5 March, and returning home to San Francisco two days later. Instead, the cruise liner was held off the San Francisco coast for several days, until it docked in the Port of Oakland on 9 March.

The 2,000 passengers on board disembarked over the course of three days. More than 800 California residents were sent to Travis air force base in Fairfield, about 47 miles north-east of San Francisco , to serve out a 14-day quarantine.

David and Denise are keeping a diary documenting their stay there.

11 March

David, 10.35am – I don’t know what this is going to be – a journal, story or what. I just wanted to write down some of the many thoughts I have had as we go through this surreal ordeal. We are on the fourth floor of the Westwind Inn hotel, on the property of Travis air force base. Got in our room at 9.30pm last night, after a long day that started at 6am on the ship.

We had been dressed and ready to depart our stateroom C314 on the 10th floor, at 7am. The ship had arrived in Oakland the previous day, and passengers had begun disembarking – the sick and elderly first. We couldn’t see much from what was going on. All the action was on the starboard side, and we were on port.

We waited more than six hours for our turn today. My impression is that Princess Cruises is very experienced in handling large groups, feeding, giving instructions and disembarking procedures. They have it together. On the land, it’s more politically and medically challenging, as officials have to coordinate between cities, states and the federal government.

This morning, we thought we had to get up for our coronavirus test at 7.15am. On 6 March, Vice-President Pence had announced that everyone disembarking from the boat would be tested for coronavirus.

We scrambled to the elevator area, only to find that the staff were handing out breakfast boxes. So, no testing. At 9.30am, they gave us a temperature check and symptom questions. We were told we would be tested only if we show symptoms. Is that because there is a shortage of testing supplies?

We went downstairs and found a large group of masked passengers in line for coffee and using their bare hands to get juice cartons and breakfast boxes.

12 March

David, 8.55am – There are 846 Californians in our four-story hotel at Travis air force base. The majority are elderly folks, many using canes, walkers, wheelchairs and scooters. Medical staff takes our temperatures twice a day. We asked again to be tested for Covid-19 and learned this morning from a medical staff person that they do not have test kits.

It is likely that there are folks among us with the virus. We are advised to wash hands, wear our masks, stay six feet from others, and not gather in large groups. However, we have large groups standing close to each other in line to pick up their food boxes. We’ve seen people pick up a box, look at it, then choose another box.

We skipped coffee this morning because to get coffee you have to stand in a line, then use your bare hands to separate a cup from a stack of cups and dispense coffee from a community container. I asked a medical staff person why not have staff dispense the coffee, noting they all have gloves. She said there is not enough staff.

I feel that each day we stay here we increase our chances of contracting the virus. Denise and I are doing our best to protect ourselves and stay positive. We are healthy and know that we will do well if we get the virus. We don’t take the elevators; we try to stay away from groups of people. We exercise. I do tai chi every day and Denise meditates every day.

Denise, 2pm – I spent much of yesterday and today talking to political folks about the conditions here, calling the offices of California senators Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris and congressman John Garamendi.

We were feeling rather discouraged about the health and safety situation. But things are improving. At noon they started delivering our meals to our rooms.

David, 3.40pm – What a day. Another passenger and I were outside playing Five Foot Two on the ukuleles we got on the cruise ship. A military guy politely approached us and said: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have orders to ask you to return to your room.” I don’t know why. Off to our room.

There is no alcohol allowed here. But we have a few small bottles from the ship. Just had Jack and coke, made Denise a gin and tonic without ice or limes.

13 March

David, 9.02am – We are getting acquainted with how things work here. Yesterday at the reception area in the lobby I asked a friendly service woman if we could have some shampoo. She said, “You know, soap is fine.” I said “OK, could we have some soap?” She said, “Sorry, we are out of soap.” Later I asked another staff member for some soap. She gave me a small bottle of shampoo.

This morning, after complimenting the staff on how they are now dispensing the box meals to our rooms, I complained that coffee is still grab and go, as are juice, water, cream and sugar.

A few minutes later a staff member knocked at our door and said the commander of the quarantine operation would like to talk to me. Denise and I thought, “Oh no, now we are in trouble.” We met Nate Contreras, who informed us that he is in charge of 60 staff, who serve food, deliver medications, take our temperatures and respond to any passenger’s medical issue. He was friendly and wanted to hear our concerns. He explained that he didn’t have enough staff to dispense coffee, but he has asked for more.

We asked for more hand-washing stations, signs and hand sanitizer. The only place we can wash our hands is in our rooms. We suggested they give us packets for the coffee makers we have in our rooms, he said he would look into it. Surprise: we were not in trouble.

Denise, 9am – We got our first official Travis air force base newsletter today. Here’s what they said about testing: Everyone here will have the opportunity to be tested for Covid-19. You are not required to be tested. It will be your choice. If you choose to be tested, it is important that you understand that if the results of your test are pending, then it is possible it may delay your departure.

David, 10.30am – 23 March is the first day of spring and supposedly the end of our 14-day quarantine. We have nine days to go; this testing statement sounds like it is a feeble attempt to be able to claim that passengers were offered the opportunity to be tested. What would you do?

Here is our list of needs: a blanket (we have a one-sheet cover on our bed and it’s cold in here), coffee, replacement light bulb for the light on our bed stand, hand soap and laundry detergent.

14 March

David, 8.03am – Denise and I are healthy and in good spirits. We got another newsletter today. It repeats the same testing instructions we saw yesterday, which seem like a threat rather than an option to be tested.

We walked in the rain this morning. We have to walk on the lawn, as most of the sidewalks are outside the perimeter fence that surrounds the complex – with security guards in SUVs watching 24/7.

16 March (sic)

Denise, 9.30am – Woke up at 6am. While David was doing the laundry down the hall, I made the bed and cleaned the bathroom with the hand sanitizer cloths that we had brought with us on the cruise ship. They are gold, and we only use them to clean surfaces in our room and bathroom. There are no cleaning supplies. We were told we could have a room cleaning, but we prefer to not have anyone in our room.

We have decided not to be tested. Our rationale is we are in good health and show no symptoms. As required, we wear our masks when out of our room, stay six feet from individuals, don’t touch handles. We take stairs and wash our hands for 20 seconds when we return to our room.

15 March (sic)

Denise, 9.31am – Up at 7am. Our floor medical person took our temp at 8.30 – normal. We have acquired some coffee, so David made coffee in our room. Breakfast was lighter this morning: bagel, cream cheese, banana, option for yogurt and a ketchup pack (what for?).

The daily 2pm conference call with federal officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) left us confused and worried. They announced there have been two confirmed cases among passengers assigned to this facility. They said those with close contact with those individuals have been informed; no need to be concerned. They have begun testing those who asked to be tested – only 30% of those at Travis ended up wanting a test. Those who got tested are still waiting for results.

Dinner served at 6.40pm included a hamburger bun with a piece of yellow cheese, sliced tomato and a piece of lettuce. I asked if there was anything else and the man who delivered it said no. So we used the microwave in our room to heat up the bun and cheese. Wasn’t that bad, but it was not many calories. Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door and we were given two more boxes with a bare hamburger patty and fries. Too bad we had already eaten the cheese and bun.

17 March

Denise, 9.30am – We don’t have a table for eating. We tried using the luggage rack with a towel on it but that proved to be too unstable. Now David eats at the desk and I sit on a leather chair and balance the container on my lap.

We get many emails and texts. We find we need to take breaks from our telephones and from hearing about this pandemic.

At the daily conference call, the doctor gave us more details about the two confirmed cases.One person was identified as having the virus while disembarking from the ship and was not brought to Travis. The other case was a couple that had mobility issues and one tested positive. They were not on the base long and were in their room, so exposure was minimal to others, the staff told us. A total of 37 confirmed cases as of today from the Grand Princess.

When they brought our dinner, David put on some soothing classical music. We wish we had some wine.

I want to say this staff has taken a lot of flak from many of us, me included. They have listened, and in most cases, followed up. I have seen changes and an almost daily effort and improvement, specifically around food and drink.

At 8pm, we got a call from the front desk and we have two packages! It’s like Christmas! David went down and just came up with two Amazon boxes. One box is from our son Jonathan: a large bag of M&M’s. The other box is from my sister: dental floss and body lotion. We’re happy with these new items to add to our simple supply of “extras”.

20 March

Denise, 5 pm – Bad news today. More people at Travis have tested positive. If they didn’t get it on the ship, they probably may have gotten it here. The conditions the first few days were appalling.

On 20 March, HHS confirmed that, with new test results still coming in, eight people at Travis had tested positive. Four of them were hospitalized with complications of Covid-19. One person was hospitalized for other reasons.

“Everyone that requested to be tested was tested,” an HHS spokesperson said. “The government cannot force an asymptomatic person to be tested.”

In a statement, the department also emphasized that it is working to improve conditions for the Grand Princess passengers under quarantine.

“This unprecedented response has presented significant logistical challenges that have affected passengers. During the first two days of this massive undertaking, HHS focused on screening passengers for symptoms, addressing any underlying health conditions, providing access to prescription medication, and getting passengers settled into their rooms. At each step of the way, plans and policies were adapted as necessary to accommodate specific problems at hand.”

“This is the first federal quarantine in nearly 60 years. HHS’s number one priority is the health of the passengers, the people caring for them, and those in the surrounding communities. We continue to focus on hospitality issues, such as food service and housekeeping, to improve the comfort of our guests.”

As told to Erin McCormick, a California-based reporter who specializes in database analysis.

Featured image credit: David and Denise Morse/The Guardian