If you can believe it, we can now mark the one-year anniversary of the Grand Princess cruise ship COVID outbreak and the ensuing, weeks-long, nationally televised drama that was a precursor to the global pandemic. Now, some surviving passengers are looking back on the experience and how it did or did not change them.
The Grand Princess was one of two Princess cruise ships that played host to early coronavirus outbreaks that preceded nationwide lockdown orders, back when officials still hoped or believed that the virus could be contained. First there was the Diamond Princess, where an 80-year-old passenger fell ill in late January, and whose COVID-19 case was confirmed on February 1, 2020, after he disembarked in Hong Kong on January 25. By February 3, the ship was anchored in quarantine at Yokohama Port in Japan, and by February 5, 10 more COVID cases were confirmed on the ship, with that number rising rapidly in the ensuing days. By February 15, more than 200 cases on the ship had been confirmed among passengers and crew, and by the time passengers began disembarking from the ship on February 23, the confirmed case count was 691. Seven people on board the ship died from the virus.
Experts looking back at the case of the Diamond Princess have concluded through genetic sequencing that all those hundreds of cases likely stemmed from single positive case that spread rapidly among passengers as they mingled on the ship. Later studies have concluded that most transmission of the virus stopped when passengers were confined to their cabins, however crew members who had to continue delivering meals and interacting with passengers did continue getting sick, and uninfected people sharing cabins with the infected also became sick later.
The Grand Princess outbreak was less widespread, however at least 122 people were infected on the ship, and seven of them died. The ship set sail from the Bay Area to Mexico on February 11, 2020, returning on February 21. Not long after, a 71-year-old Placer County man who had been on the cruise was hospitalized with COVID-19 and died by early March. At this point, the Grand Princess — with some passengers and much of its crew still on board from the Mexico cruise — had sailed on a second leg to Hawaii, and was on its way back to the Bay Area with sick people on board. The ship was held offshore near San Francisco on March 5 while the federal government intervened, and while symptomatic passengers and crew were tested for the virus. Initially, only 45 tests were administered due to an apparent shortage of testing supplies, and 21 came back positive — 19 of them crew members.
1,100 crew members were largely forced to quarantine onboard the ship once it finally docked in Oakland on March 9, and a multi-day process ensued to disembark and quarantine the ship's 2,400 passengers.
Among those were 23-year-old Santa Clara University grad Michelle Heckert and her grandparents, Adelina and Henry Serata of San Francisco. Videos of the Seratas went viral after Heckert began tweeting from the ship and then from their quarantine digs at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County.
On this day 1 year ago (my grandma’s 87th birthday), my grandparents and I had boarded the #GrandPrincess and were on our way to Hawaii for the cruise of a lifetime! 😬 Needless to say, we spent her 88th quite differently 😅 pic.twitter.com/jdBYl5ydmc— Michelle Heckert (@WhatTheHeckert) February 22, 2021
These included the brief clip below of Adelina Serata dancing in her N95 mask as they waited for transportation, back on dry land for the first time in three weeks.
As Heckert wrote shortly after their ordeal, "During WWII my grandparents were incarcerated for their Japanese ancestry. Though the experience of [quarantine] differed GREATLY, they mentioned the parallels of being kept away from home. All this to say they are incredibly strong individuals & I admire them greatly."
ABC 7 caught up with the Seratas this week, just after Adelina celebrated her 88th birthday on February 21 — the cruise last year was in celebration of her 87th. And both husband and wife have received their first vaccine shots and are waiting for their second.
"Happy birthday! I had a lovely time," she said. When asked about the cruise and quarantine experience, Adelina Serata said that she thought it had brought them closer with their granddaughter.
"I thought, 'My God to go through something like that, it's like history.'"
Surprisingly, the Seratas already have two more cruises planned, including a cruise to Hawaii in November to make up for their interrupted Hawaiian vacation last year.
But, she says, she hopes there will be regulations that require all passengers and crew to be vaccinated before they board a ship.
Photo: Michelle Heckert