Hawaii couple aboard ‘Diamond Princess’ reflect on coronavirus one year later


HONOLULU (KHON2) — It has been one year since Ewa Beach residents Eric and Debbie Pagan were told to stay in their stateroom aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship after a passenger onboard tested positive for coronavirus.

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The Pagan’s left Hawaii for Japan on January 16, 2020 and were excited for their two-week cruise which had stops in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan.

There were more than 3,700 people onboard from 50 different countries.

Several studies have been published regarding the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that resulted in over 700 cases and seven deaths.

They had no idea they would be some of the first Americans to experience the soon-to-be-announced global pandemic.

  • Timeline
  • Early January – World Health Organization (WHO) announces coronavirus circulating in Wuhan
  • January 19 – 80-year-old Diamond Princess passenger has a cough
  • January 20 – Diamond Princess disembarks with 80-year-old passenger on board
  • January 21 – first coronavirus case confirmed in U.S.
  • January 22 – 80-year-old passenger starts feeling more symptoms
  • January 23 – entire city of Wuhan goes into lockdown
  • January 25 – Diamond Princess arrives in Hong Kong, 80-year-old passenger disembarks
  • January 30 – 80-year-old passenger goes to a hospital where he’s tested for coronavirus
  • January 31 – WHO announced Global Health Emergency
  • February 1 – Hong Kong government confirms to Diamond Princess 80-year-old passenger had tested positive for coronavirus
  • February 3 – Diamond Princess docks at Yokohama Port
  • February 4 – passengers told to quarantine in rooms for 14-days
  • February 5 – 10 cases on board confirmed
  • February 11 – Coronavirus renamed COVID-19
  • February 17 – US citizens allowed to disembark ship and head to quarantine sites in the US
  • February 23 – 691 cases confirmed on board Diamond Princess
  • March 2 – Eric and Debbie Pagan arrive home in Hawaii after two weeks at Travis Air Force Base
  • March 11 – WHO declares COVID-19 a global pandemic
  • March 23 – Gov. David Ige announced stay at home, work from home order to begin March 25

“The captain came over the intercom and he requested all passengers to please return to their state rooms and remain there,” recalls Eric Pagan. “That was at 6:30 in the morning.”

The Pagan’s were expecting to disembark and fly home to Hawaii the following day.

“And at 8 a.m. he made the announcement that we are to stay in our room for 14 days,” said Debbie. 

“There were so many questions right at that point like how are we going to get our food? And what is happening out there?” she said.

Eric said, people listened to the captain and it was not panic at first but more “curiosity” as to what was happening.  

“I think the biggest fear was when we looked out on our balcony and we could see hundreds, if not about one thousand camera crews, cameras, all on the pier wanting everyone’s story,” Debbie recalled.

The Pagan’s said, the president of Diamond Princess came on the TVs in the staterooms to explain what was happening.

Crew members were still delivering food to each room without masks and the same gloves, as there were no health guidance rules in place at the time.

“They would be grabbing fruits out of big baskets and passing you apples, oranges, and bananas, and it was with a glove passing it to you, and they used the same gloves throughout the whole ship. They never changed the glove per room,” Eric Pagan said.

The Pagan’s said they would wash the fruits they were given just to be safe and washed their hands frequently.  

They started seeing sirens taking people away from the ship a few days into the quarantine.

“Then we start thinking okay, it’s getting more serious,” Eric said. “So, we prayed and we hoped we wouldn’t get infected because you’re in another country, and once they take you away to a hospital, you don’t know where you’re going, and what kind of communication you’re going to have with your spouse with your cell phone.”

Everything about the virus was new to many officials and the people onboard.

The Pagan’s said originally the health officials on board would take all the passenger’s temperature daily because they were told they most likely had the virus if they had a fever.

Then the passengers would take their own temperature daily and call a number if they had a higher-than-normal temperature.

Testing on the ship involved mouth swabs, not the standard PCR test which has become the ‘gold standard test.’

Testing on board the Diamond Princess originally began with people who were symptomatic and contacts in the same room. All passengers were tested once results showed people without symptoms were testing positive.

“After we had our tests it was like an anxiety, we could hear them knocking on doors and telling someone whether they were positive we’re not,” Debbie said.

She said, they could hear people crying when they had a positive result because it meant they would have to leave the ship and be separated from their spouse or family.

Former President Donald Trump requested all Americans on board be flown back to the United States on day 13 of quarantine on the ship.

“So, the U.S. started it and was the first country to start getting their people together, but what was hard was some of the spouses whose husband or wife was stuck in the Japan hospital did not want to leave, they wanted to be there ready to receive their spouse, but they had children that would tell them ‘no mom, no dad, this is the plane you have to catch and get home,’” Debbie recalled.

The Pagan’s said getting to Travis Air Force Base was probably the most difficult part of their month-long journey and required them sitting on a bus for several hours to drive just 20 minutes to the airplane.

They said the staff had to check passports, test, and take temperatures for hundreds of Americans to get back home.

The Pagan’s were able to fly home to Hawaii on March 2, 2020, after another two-week quarantine at Travis Air Force Base.

Debbie said, the couple relaxed at their Ewa Beach home for a couple of days and enjoyed eating the food they wanted to eat that was in their freezer.

A few days later they decided to go to Costco and buy some more food.

“And when I went there and there was a long line I said ‘What is happening?’” Debbie said while laughing.

“That’s when it hit me, this is real now, I thought it was just this really, really bad flu that was happening and it wasn’t a pandemic yet, but people were already starting to panic,” she said.  

“We never thought we’d go as far as this, nationwide, worldwide,” said Eric.

It would be a few days later that Gov. David Ige would announce the statewide stay-at-home order and the Pagan’s, who had already been used to quarantines, said they were happy this time they were able to be at home and with their dog.

Looking back one year later, the Pagan’s have mixed feelings on the virus and said “the dots don’t really add up,” when it comes to all the changes that have transpired over the year.

From hazmat suits as protection on the ship, to N95 masks being the best option in the spring of 2020, to cloth face masks being the best way to stop COVID-19, the Pagan’s said they do not know if there is a hidden agenda behind it all.  

“If things change back, things are never going to be the same,” said Eric. “You hear ‘we’re going to get back to normal’ with all this going on, and you see all of these businesses shut down and workers losing their jobs and you never thought you would see the day when your government is going to send a check to you.”

“Pretty soon this nation we’re all going to be under welfare and we will be dependent on the government to pay for everything, and then whatever they tell you to do, you’re going to do it, and if you don’t do it, you don’t get anything,” Eric continued.

“It went from as devastating as it was to hmm, what’s the agenda here? What’s really happening? We don’t know,” said Debbie Pagan.

The Pagan’s agreed it was best to have people on the ship stay in their rooms.

“I think it’s good instead of letting people continue running about the ship like nothing happened, and trying to do research at the same time,” Eric said.

“There was so many people from different countries, oh man, if there were people that were positive and then they go to their country, their city, they could get others sick. So, it was good being there while they figure out what was happening and containing us,” Debbie said.

The Pagan’s said if more was known about COVID-19 at the time they could have flown home safely the day they were supposed to.

“If it was something minor, and it didn’t continue on as it did, we probably could have got off the ship the following day,” Eric said.

The Pagan’s are happy to be home and with their dog Snowball and hope to go on another cruise sometime this year.

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