Tom Sheehan, 68, was fighting for his life in Sarasota, Florida with what he thought was bronchitis, but turned out to be COVID-19. He was hospitalized on March 21, one day after returning from a cruise on the Costa Luminosa.
What was supposed to be an adventure of a lifetime started with an epidemic of coronavirus at sea and ended with him and hundreds of others on a chartered flight to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport . After hours of prolonged exposure to infected people, health officials have cleared hundreds of passengers, leaving potential patients to roam freely at the world’s busiest airport.
Some of the passengers who flew across North America said they feared exposing others to the infection.
Tragedy strikes days after robbery
Chaos and confusion reigned during the trip, raising questions about how officials work together to tackle a spiraling health crisis.
And for the Sheehan brothers, the tragedy struck a few days later.
Their father tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalized after returning to Bradenton, Florida. A week after the theft, her organs began to shut down and a nurse called her family over the loudspeaker to say goodbye. His children thanked him for being a grandfather and a grandfather, and Kevin Sheehan’s wife thanked him for raising a good man. They told him they loved him, that he fought hard and that it was ok to let him go now.
At 8:51 p.m. Saturday, Tom Sheehan took his last breath.
The 11-year-old grandfather was a prankster who loved science fiction, big hugs and family reunions. He spent his last moments alone.
“It’s terrible. No one should ever have to go through this, “said Kevin Sheehan. “I hope with all my heart that he could hear our voices. “
A trying journey from the start
Sheehan and his wife left South Florida on March 5. But their cruise to Puerto Rico, Antigua, Spain and France seemed doomed from the start.
Three days later, on March 8, a husband and a woman with symptoms of coronavirus landed in Puerto Rico.
On March 12, the Cayman Islands government said that a man who left the cruise ship on an earlier trip in late February with flu-like symptoms tested positive for coronavirus. He was the first confirmed case from the Cayman Islands and died a few days later.
The cruise ship said on March 13 that it had received confirmation that the woman who landed in Puerto Rico had tested positive and that the authorities informed the passengers, several passengers told CNN. A week later, she passed away.
The ship continued on its way to Europe.
Two days after the woman’s positive confirmation, the ship’s crew dropped several sick passengers in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa. Then the ship began quarantining the passengers in their rooms, they told CNN as it scoured the waters for a place to dock. Spain and Antigua have already rejected it.
The Canary Islands have authorized the ship to unload several travelers with respiratory problems provided that no one else leaves the ship during this stopover.
“As a precaution, all the guests were fitted with medical masks and gloves by the medical staff on board before receiving approval from the French authorities to disembark and go to Marseille Provence airport for departure to the United States, “said Carnival Corp., owner of Costa Cruises, in a statement.
France granted him permission to dock in Marseille on March 19. The cruise line has informed the Americans and Canadians that it has scheduled a charter plane to take them to Atlanta.
Costa coordinated the flight with the French government and health officials, said Carnival. The State Department, which worked to repatriate the Americans, also told CNN that the cruise company arranged the flight.
Sheehan and more than 350 Americans and Canadians were loaded onto buses, where they waited for hours before boarding the chartered overnight flight to Atlanta.
United States finds positive test during flight in flight
Their nightmare was far from over.
While the flight was in flight, the results of some American passengers who had been tested in Marseille returned. Three of them had tested positive for the coronavirus and 13 others had symptoms, the centers for disease control and prevention told CNN.
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French health officials conducted the tests before the flight and informed the State Department of the positive tests while the flight was in flight, said Carnival.
We do not know why the flight did not wait for the test results before taking off from Marseille. CNN has contacted the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comments.
More than 350 people in the confined space of a cruise ship continued their journey in the even smaller space of a transatlantic flight.
During the nearly 10-hour flight to Atlanta, the passengers constantly coughed. Some seniors passed out while others appeared to be feverish, said Jenny Harrell Catron, 51, a former nurse and passenger on the flight.
At this point, Sheehan had not been tested.
“I set up a triage on the plane to separate those with fever from the rest of the passengers,” said Harrell Catron. “The passengers passed the time making sure their fellow passengers were aware and breathing. “
“We were covered from head to toe”
The flight landed in Atlanta in the wee hours of March 20 in a world different from that which the passengers had left on their first departure. Since then, the rapidly spreading coronavirus has overwhelmed health care systems, cleaned public spaces, closed workplaces and provoked social events, disrupting life in unprecedented ways.
Passenger Martha Turner Bradbury said she had read information about cruise ship passengers subjected to rigorous health checks and a two-week quarantine at military bases across the country. She was prepared for it.
After all, that’s what happened in February, when around 400 American passengers returned from their cruise to Japan aboard the Diamond Princess. When their two-week quarantine ended in Tokyo Bay, they were flown to two US air bases in California and Texas for two more weeks of quarantine in biological containment facilities.
In a highly choreographed federal and military effort to save lives and contain the virus, 14 Diamond Princess passengers who tested positive were transported by air to a dedicated containment area.
Instead, said Bradbury, the Costa Luminosa passengers landed in Atlanta on a chaotic scene without clear direction and preparation.
Lack of protocol leaves passengers confused
In the cargo area where the plane landed, passengers were greeted by health officials in dangerous overalls, said Bradbury. They obtained temperature monitoring and visual assessment, as well as documents asking if anyone had a cough, sore throat or other ailment associated with the coronavirus, she said.
Those showing signs of possible illness were taken to a separate room while those with no symptoms headed to customs and then placed on buses which dropped them off near a terminal, said Bradbury . From there, we all told them to go get their bags.
“We think someone is going to meet with us … no. You enter and you are in the terminal with everyone. We were shocked, ”said Bradbury.
Several passengers told CNN that they were allowed to walk around the airport, including at least one symptomatic person.
“We were covered in viruses from head to toe. We shouldn’t have been at the airport, “said Harrell Catron.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport referred CNN to the CDC.
Without a post-arrival quarantine plan and no other options, Bradbury said, they joined other travelers. They saw themselves as potential coronavirus patients and walked away if someone got too close. Some went to their respective doors for their commercial flights to the house, others went to the restaurant to eat and others went to the toilet. Others have even taken carpooling to other parts of Atlanta.
“It was great that they brought us there. But not having a plan or protocol in place is crazy, ”said Bradbury.
From Atlanta, Bradbury hopped on a flight to Minneapolis, then another to Winnipeg, Canada, where she is isolated by herself while awaiting test results.
Instead, Harrell Catron chose to self-quarantine at an Atlanta hotel for 14 days before leaving for his home in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Residents of the Phoenix area, Kelea Nevis and her husband, Jim Nevis, were briefly detained after her fever registered more than 100 degrees, she said. Officials gave her husband a Chick-fil-A sandwich and resumed her temperature after a wait, she told CNN. It had dropped to around 99 degrees, so they were allowed to take a commercial flight home. “Her temperature was 102.5 when we landed,” said Kelea Nevis.
Five days after they returned home, he was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. He tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized. He was released this week.
Action on potential cases changes as the pandemic evolves
The incident highlights the different ways in which federal officials are treating potentially contagious people as the pandemic evolves.
In the case of Grand Princess, another cruise ship of which at least 21 tested positive, the evacuated US passengers were quarantined at national military bases after the ship docked in California on March 9 .
Over 500 of these passengers were flown to the Dobbins air reserve base, where they were picked up at two military facilities north of Atlanta. It was nine days before the Costa Luminosa passengers arrived in Atlanta.
It is unclear if this is the standard protocol now for freeing passengers from self-quarantine at home. More than a dozen cruise ships remain stranded at sea – some without passengers – as ports refuse entry and those on board panic at the thought of returning home.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defended its decision to let Costa Luminosa passengers return home, noting that with the boom in the coronavirus community in the United States and around the world, it “now considers that passengers Passengers returning from cruise ships are at the same level of risk of exposure as Americans returning from any hard-hit country.
“We recommend that symptom-free travelers quickly return home via commercial carriers and then quarantine them,” he said in a statement. “This travel protocol reflects the harsh reality of this unprecedented epidemic.”
The federal health agency said it became aware that a charter flight arrived shortly before it landed at the airport.
“CDC, along with federal, state and local partners, responded quickly by screening and screening passengers in a remote part of the airport. Three passengers who allegedly tested positive for Covid-19 have been separated, and the CDC and other partners have worked together to determine a plan to isolate and care for these people, “said the CDC.
It is unclear how the health authorities isolated the three passengers or what care was provided.
In addition, the CDC said it informed passengers of the social distance, told them to stay at home for 14 days and informed their health care provider if they had any symptoms.
Georgia’s governor’s office, Brian Kemp, and the CDC did not respond to requests for further comment on why the passengers were not quarantined at the bases.
Other passengers and crew members tested positive
Since then, 11 passengers and nine crew members have tested positive for the coronavirus, the cruise line said, adding that 40 other crew members were positive but asymptomatic.
It is unclear whether this number includes all passengers from different nations. The cruise line said after the guests got off the ship, health officials in some countries are posting updates on the confirmed cases.
To stay in touch and get updates, passengers around the world who have taken this cruise have created a Facebook group to mourn those who have died and share details about those who are sick.
“Seat 16K, the fever was 101.1, headache, nausea. Throat like something stuck thick, “reads a post.
“16F. fever, chills, sore throat, nausea, diarrhea, sore eyes, ”said another.
More than three dozen passengers on the charter flight to Atlanta are now self-reported Covid-19 tests positive in the Facebook group.
With news of confirmed cases and no words from the cruise line, said Kevin Sheehan, the page gave his family a glimpse of their father’s last days. But the more the brothers learn from passengers posting information about the group, the more they get angry at the cruise line for what they say is a lack of communication about confirmed positive cases.
The brothers are still trying to think of losing their father. Their father’s wife – their stepmother – did not have a chance to say goodbye.
She is crying for her husband while she is isolated at home, alone.
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