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Marin County couple endures 2-week quarantine on coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess ship

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A Marin County couple finally returned to the U.S. early this week after nearly two weeks in quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which had about 60 American passengers aboard who tested positive for the coronavirus, docked off the coast of Yokohama, Japan.

Rick and Aldeana Saber were flown Monday to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, still unable to head home to Novato for two more weeks while being observed for potential virus symptoms.

They expect what started as a 14-day vacation cruise Jan. 20 in Yokohama — then 2½ weeks later turned into a harrowing ordeal to avoid being stricken with the virus that originated in China and has killed more than 2,100 people worldwide — to end with their arrival home to the North Bay March 2.

The Sabers are among more than 300 Americans who happily evacuated the ship, including 14 who tested positive for the virus, that were transported to Lackland or Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield.

U.S. health officials had decided to evacuate the Americans from the virus-stricken Diamond Princess and fly them back to the two military bases in the states, while leaving behind more than 40 other Americans already taken from the ship and admitted to Japanese hospitals.

Initially, the ship’s passengers were told no one who had contracted the virus would be allowed on the planes bound for America, according to the Sabers.

They and other Americans on the ship were instructed to have their belongings ready to go Sunday around 5 p.m. The Sabers were finally allowed to board a bus around 1 a.m. Monday, although another bus had been loaded and waiting to leave for the airport since 10 p.m. the night before. At this time, it was discovered 14 Americans already on a bus had tested positive for the virus during a final screening.

“An immediate response and clear communication were our minimal expectation,” said Rick Saber of U.S. and Japanese officials organizing the evacuation. “Instead, we were kept in the dark and issued a number of boilerplate emails with no plan of action.”

Then officials mixed up people’s passports on the 10 buses, which caused a further two-hour delay before that problem was resolved. Finally the buses departed the port city of Yokohama for an airport, with police escort.

The Sabers boarded one of the two cargo planes. Rick Saber, a retired senior airline captain, said the plane he and his wife were on had exposed clamps and uneven cargo pallets to which the seats were attached. Just before takeoff, the Sabers and other passengers were told their plane was headed to San Antonio, although they and all the others lived much closer to the Travis military base in California and had requested to go there.

Five doctors accompanied the flight to check passengers for symptoms of the coronavirus and to tend to passengers seated in a sealed section of the plane because they already tested positive for the virus. The sick passengers’ final destination would be a Nebraska hospital.

On Feb. 4 when the ship returned to Yokohama, the passengers got the initial bad news they would not be allowed to depart as expected. One passenger who had disembarked in Hong Kong on Jan. 25 tested positive six days later for the coronavirus. While in port, the Japanese Ministry of Health screened all 2,600 passengers on the Diamond Princess and the 1,000 crew members for the infection.

Ten passengers tested positive in that first testing, including one American. One crew member also tested positive. That prompted Japanese officials to order the ship to tay docked and be placed in quarantine for two weeks, with passengers remaining in their cabins.

During this time, the Sabers did their best to stay positive, going so far as suggesting to rebrand the Princess Cruise line’s motto, “Come Back New,” as a way to realize how fortunate they have been. Rick Saber said he and his wife tried to find humor in little things every day and would get the stewards that brought the couple their meals to sing a cappella with him.

During the 14-day quarantine, they were only allowed to leave their cabin for three one-hour walks on the ship. And they had to wear face masks and gloves during those walks.

A daily menu was delivered to the Sabers’ cabin door for them to select their choice of meals. Every day they would jokingly draw a bottle of wine or other beverage on the menu and leave it for the stewards, hoping one day an alcoholic drink would be brought with their food. To their surprise, and relief, one day their wish came true. A bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin and two bottles of tonic arrived at their cabin.

“Our adventurous cruise was never fully explained in the Princess brochures which attracted us to this unreal experience,” Rick Saber said, happy he and his wife are back on U.S. soil.

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