Alberta couple aboard quarantined cruise after coronavirus outbreak

Hans, 74, and Lolita, 69, have embraced an unflappable attitude inside their 160 square foot stateroom since the quarantine was ordered on Tuesday, even as the threat of the virus looms large over the floating quarantine site.

'It’s exciting to see the sunshine, to see that life is normal outside and we’re just not part of it'

Lolita and Hans Wiesner are quarantined on the Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan after a passenger tested positive for the coronavirus. There were 69 confirmed cases by Sunday. (Lolita Wiesner)

It's not how Lolita and Hans Wiesner expected to celebrate their 47th anniversary. But the Alberta couple says decades of marriage have readied them for this harrowing experience: a two-week quarantine in a small windowless cruise ship stateroom at the centre of a coronavirus outbreak off the coast of Japan. 

"We like each other's company, and when we don't, there's television," Lolita joked in an interview with CBC News on Sunday

The couple, from just outside Red Deer, Alta., are among the 3,700 guests and crew holed up on the Diamond Princess cruise, after a passenger tested positive for the coronavirus when he disembarked in Hong Kong. 

Hans, 74, and Lolita, 69, have embraced an unflappable demeanour inside their 160 square foot interior room since quarantine was ordered on Tuesday, even as the threat of the virus looms large over the ship. 

"Not all the passengers are happy, but we're quite content and we realize that there's nothing we can do about it. We might as well make the best out of what we can," Hans said. 

The floating quarantine site is anchored at the Yokohama port, where ambulances are on standby to take infected passengers to hospital. As of Sunday, 69 passengers had tested positive for the virus, including at least seven Canadians. Another 10 people had to be taken to hospital for other reasons, Princess Cruises confirmed.

The halls of the ship were quiet over the weekend as crews patrolled all 18 decks to ensure passengers abide by the order, the couple said. The quarantine is expected to remain in place until Feb. 19, barring any unforeseen developments, Princess Cruises said. 

'It's exciting to see sunshine'

As of Sunday, Lolita and Hans had only seen the sun twice since the quarantine began. 

A voice comes over the intercom every couple hours to announce the next block of passengers who can venture to the exterior deck for 60 minutes of fresh air. Masks are mandatory and passengers are asked to stay two metres apart, the announcements say. 

"It's exciting to see the sunshine, to see that life is normal outside and we're just not part of it," Lolita told CBC News on Sunday. 

"Most of us were just trying to take more than 10 steps at a time because we were so confined in the cabin. It was fun to be able to walk a little bit without turning." 

Emergency crews are on standby at the port in Yokohama to transport infected passengers to hospital. (Submitted by Gloria Ho)

Inside the cabin, Lolita has taken advantage of free internet and increased bandwidth to download e-books from the Red Deer Public Library, where she used to work as an administrator. The couple does the crossword together in the mornings, but Lolita says Hans usually finishes it alone when she loses interest. They share the TV, with Hans watching news and sports during the day, and Lolita typically ruling over the evening movie selection. 

It beats quarantine at home, Lolita said. 

"This is really a better option because we get our meals cooked and served to us," she said. "There is always a silver lining, you just have to look a little bit for it."

Coronavirus death toll surpasses 900

But they are concerned about the passengers who have contracted the virus, and sympathetic to those feeling anxious as the quarantine wears on. 

The coronavirus death toll surpassed the 2002/2003 SARS epidemic over the weekend, with authorities reporting 908 people on mainland China alone had died as of Sunday. 

One of the lessons of the SARS epidemic was the toll quarantine can wreak on a person's mental health. A 2004 study out of the University of Toronto found people exhibited higher levels of psychological distress and, in around a third of respondents, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after quarantine. 

Lolita Wiesner stands on the deck of the Diamond Princess for a moment in the sunshine before she is forced to return to her interior stateroom as part of a 14-day coronavirus quarantine. (Lolita Wiesner)

Passengers aboard the Diamond Princess have access to on-call mental health counsellors by phone, the cruise company said in a statement Saturday. The crew have also been coordinating with local health officials to ensure people have ready access to medicine. 

Everyone aboard was given a thermometer and are expected to check their temperature several times a day, the couple said. If it surpasses 37.5 degrees Celsius, a health official must be notified. 

'We were living in hope'

The cruise ship's first confirmed coronavirus patient disembarked in Hong Kong on Jan. 25, then later tested positive for the virus at a local hospital, officials confirmed on Feb. 1. 

Lolita and Hans only learned something was wrong on Monday when the captain announced the cruise was arriving in Yokohama several hours ahead of schedule. The boat would not be docking. Rather, health officials would be boarding to screen all passengers. 

Early on Tuesday, the couple learned the boat was being held for 24-hour quarantine, but by the end of the day, it was extended to 14 days. 

"It just made us laugh because now we knew where we were standing. But we still didn't unpack our bags. We were living in hope," Lolita said. 

The number of confirmed coronavirus passengers spiked over the next 72 hours, starting with 10 cases early on Wednesday and ballooning to more than 60 by Friday. 

"I think that might have caused a little adrenaline rush," Lolita said. 

'Something out of the middle ages'

Public health experts have criticized the quarantine as an unnecessary and potentially harmful answer to the ship's outbreak.

"This is like something out of the middle ages," former Ontario Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Schabas said on CBC News Network Sunday

"They should check the people for infection, they should let them off the boat those who aren't infected, and they should put them under some form of observation for the next ten days to two weeks." 

The couple was set to fly to Lisbon on Tuesday to start the European portion of an extended vacation, before returning to Joffre, Alta., about 30 kilometres northeast of Red Deer, in April. 

But while the coronavirus may have muddled their travel plans, it won't stop them from celebrating their 47th anniversary on Friday, Valentine's Day. The couple plans on putting on their finest formal wear and ordering a bottle of champagne. 

"We'll be laughing about this every year from here on," Lolita said. 

The quarantine has not shaken their love for cruising either, they said. But they might consider a balcony room next time.