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SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. government is sending a chartered plane to Japan to bring Americans who’ve been quarantined on a Princess cruise ship since Jan. 6 back to Air Force bases in California or Texas for testing, quarantine or medical care.
Though their spouses will have to remain behind, two Utahns say they’ll take the flight, which is scheduled to pick passengers up in the port of Yokohama, screen them for symptoms, and then fly them to California Sunday evening for more medical tests and monitoring.
“I’m planning to get on the plane tomorrow,” said Melanie Haering, a Tooele County resident whose husband John was the first Utahn with a confirmed case of Coronavirus, in a text to KSL Saturday evening, local time in Japan. John Haering, who was celebrating retirement with six months of travel with his wife, remains in an isolation room at a Chiba hospital and will not be eligible to be flown home on the charter.
Mark Jorgensen, a St. George resident whose wife Jerri was taken to a hospital hours before the flight was announced, said the experience feels “kinda surreal right now. Just kinda in a daze.”
Though his wife is four hours away from him in the hospital, he says they are able to communicate via FaceTime. He can’t be with her in person, and says he will get “kicked off” the ship in five or six days. He would then be stuck in Japan, as the State Department has said he can’t return to the U.S. for an unspecified “period of time,” according to Jorgensen.
That’s why he’s taking the flight back to the U.S.
Mark Jorgensen is considered medically vulnerable as he’s had two kidney transplants, the most recent in 2015.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Japan’s website, a letter was sent to passengers in an email on Feb. 15 at 3:24, Tokyo time, and it offers American citizens the chance to return to the U.S. for treatment.
“This is a dynamic situation,” the emailed letter said. “We are deeply grateful to the cruise line and government of Japan for working diligently to contain and control the spread of the illness. However, to fulfill our government’s responsibilities to U.S. citizens under our rules and practices, as well as to reduce the burden on the Japanese health care system, the U.S. government recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring.”
John Haering was removed from the ship about three days after becoming sick around Feb. 10. He was tested at the hospital in Chiba and confirmed to have coronavirus.
Melanie Haering has not been tested, and said she has become increasingly worried about how the virus is spreading and whether or not staying on the ship is the best option for her. In a text early Saturday, she said the ship’s captain made an announcement that her quarantine would restart from “the last day my cabinmate and I were together. Lots of confusion and miscommunication.”
Later that day, which is Saturday evening in Yokohama, she received both a letter from Princess Cruise officials, as well as the email from the U.S. Embassy in Japan. It offered an option to any U.S. citizen who may want an option other than what the cruise company offered, which was to stay on the ship under current quarantine conditions or disembark and stay in Japanese quarantine facilities.
“The aircraft will arrive in Japan the evening of Feb. 16,” the email said. “Buses will move you and your belongings from the ship to the aircraft. Passengers will be screened for symptoms and we are working with our Japanese partners to ensure that any symptomatic passengers receive the required care in Japan if they cannot board the flight. The aircraft will land in the United States at Travis Air Force Base in California. Some passengers will then continue onward to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. We will provide information about your final destination prior to boarding the plane.”
While quarantine timelines appeared to be in flux on the cruise ship, they were definite if passengers returned to the U.S.
“Travelers returning to the United States from high-risk areas are required to undergo quarantine,” the email said. “Accordingly, you will need to undergo further quarantine of 14 days when you arrive in the United States. We understand this is frustrating and an adjustment, but these measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease. We appreciate your understanding and cooperation and will provide all the assistance we can to support the quarantine process.”
The letter also offered, however, an ominous reality for those who choose to stay in Japan for quarantine and treatment, and possibly for those already in isolation at Chiba.
“Should you choose not to return on this charter flight, you will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time,” the letter said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make a final determination on this matter.”
Jerri Jorgensen was taken off the ship hours before the announcement, after developing a fever the evening of Feb. 14. She was removed from the ship the following afternoon and taken to an isolation facility.
Jorgensen, who was taken to an undisclosed facility four hours from the ship, offered an update in a video on social media to her stay in isolation, a stark contrast to what Haering is experiencing in Chiba where he said he has extremely limited food options and is being forced to purchase water.
“They’re taking good care of me,” Jorgensen said, modeling her special “jammies” and showing the box of chocolates and starbucks she was given upon arrival. An avid outdoorswoman who practices pilates, she said she was concerned about fitness options.
“I said, ‘What can I do about exercise?’” she said. The video was upbeat, hopeful and at times humorous, especially as she showed her food and talked about the choice between Japanese cuisine or McDonald’s.
“I used to do a keto diet, so bring on the bread,” she laughed after being asked about food preferences. “Especially since that might be the only thing I like. But I will do my best.”
Jorgensen said in the video that she feels good, except for the temperature, but she will remain in the facility for two weeks regardless, according to those caring for her.
“Quite frankly, I’d rather be here in a nice hospital than in a barrack,” she said, of the rumors of what awaits those who fly back to the U.S. on the chartered plane to military bases in California and Texas.
“It is what it is,” she said, noting she is missing a trip to New York to see several Broadway shows with her daughters and granddaughters. “We’ve got so many people praying for us. Our ward is doing a ward fast for us. ... It’s good.”
Mark Jorgensen told KSL it’s the couple’s nature to “just roll with things.”
“Life just works easier that way,” he said.
When asked if he will take a cruise again, Jorgensen said, “Yes, absolutely,” adding that the Princess Cruise line has offered the couple a free trip.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero, KSL TV