A Victoria woman is home after spending weeks in quarantine off the coast of California and at a Canadian Forces base in Ontario, after COVID-19 began spreading to North America.
Melanie Sibbitt is a business owner who decided to book a last-minute vacation for herself: a two-week cruise to Hawaii on the Grand Princess cruise ship.
“It was a long overdue vacation,” Sibbitt said. “I needed a break. It was time to breathe.”
Little did she know how ironic that statement would be when, 11 days into the tour, passengers learned that four previous passengers on the ship had tested positive for COVID-19, and that one of the men who departed the ship was the first to die of the virus in California.
“That started the whole snowball effect,” she said, as the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the Governor of California asked the ship to stay where it was off the California coast.
At first passengers needed to self-report if they were feeling ill, and subtle changes were instated on board the ship.
|Staff and passengers aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship had to wear masks as passengers disembarked and were shipped to quarantine sites in their respective home countries. (File contributed/ Melanie Sibbitt)|
At a formal lobster dinner night, staff were the only people who could touch food, cutlery and even salt and pepper when serving, and handwashing stations were found around the dining area.
Things stepped up by the next day when the captain told passengers that a military helicopter would be bringing in COVID-19 tests and medical crews.
The helicopter, Sibbitt recalled, was a hair away from the ship.
“I remember thinking ‘Am I in a movie? Am I an extra and someone forgot to tell me?’” Sibbitt said.
Tests found 21 passengers and crew members positive, and consequently everyone else was told to self-quarantine in their rooms.
“I’m very fortunate that I don’t scare easily and I stay positive,” Sibbitt said, adding that the staff on board were phenomenal and delivered food to their doors.
Wifi and phone calls became available at no cost, and more TV stations were added for passengers.
“I was able to stay in contact with my family members by messenger, and powered through four seasons of Outlander,” Sibbitt laughed. “My sister, Kim, and I would laugh on the phone multiple times a day. It was the laughter that got us through it.”
|Canadian passengers of the Grand Princess cruise were tested for fever before going on to be sent to CFB Trenton for quarantine. (File contributed/ Melanie Sibbitt)|
After five days on the ocean the cruise ship was allowed to dock so that passengers could be transported elsewhere. Canadians were some of the first to disembark, receiving notice that they would be taken to CFB Trenton in Ontario for mandatory quarantine.
“I can’t explain how much gratitude I had from the Canadian government for swooping in and getting us out,” Sibbit said.
Tents were set up along the pier and passengers had their temperatures taken and were given masks. They received arm bands which read their temperatures and then were escorted by police to a cargo plane.
On board, Sibbitt found health care and border services agents in full hazmat suits, checking final papers and taking temperatures. There were also boxed lunches and blankets on each seat.
|Health care workers in full personal protective equipment test passengers for a fever before a cargo plane organized by the Canadian government takes off. The plane is taking Canadian passengers who had been on board the Grand Princess cruise ship in California quarantined site at CFB Trenton. (File contributed/ Melanie Sibbitt)|
There were 237 people on the plane, some showing symptoms and cordoned off into a separate section.
“Before we took off, everyone broke out into ‘O Canada’,” Sibbitt recalled.
When Canadians arrived in at the hanger in Trenton they received a warm welcome.
“Everyone applauded and cheered, saying that ‘we’re glad you’re home.’ It was very sweet.”
While the military owns the base, the Canadian Red Cross operated the quarantine zone
Red Cross staff and volunteers made sure everyone on the base was comfortable, going as far as getting clothes for people who had only packed a wardrobe for Hawaii.
Everyone was told to stay in their own rooms, where there were TVs and wifi, and were allowed to go out for one hour increments to get fresh air. Nurses came in twice per day to take temperatures and check on how everyone was feeling.
“The last question they always asked was ‘how are you coping with everything?’” Sibbitt said. “They had counsellors around if you needed one.”
During her stay there, 13 people tested positive for COVID-19 – Sibbitt was not among them.
After two weeks, healthy people were released, leaving one building at a time. Sibbitt recalled watching people leave through her window as she awaited her turn.
“It was really emotional, I had tears rolling down my face. They were tears of joy, and they were also relief.”
In Victoria Sibbitt was greeted by her sister. While they couldn’t hug, the two ‘could finally exhale.’
Sibbitt drove home along empty streets dotted with vacant businesses.
“Having been on the inside looking out, the world and city I left five weeks ago was entirely different,” she said. “There’s definitely a much different energy to our city, a much more quiet energy but in the same token a much calmer energy.”
Sibbitt is now working to maintain her business from home, having had to make some difficult decisions about shifting workers to part time and cutting herself from a paycheque until things level out.
In the meantime, however, she hopes other people can take away positivity from the pandemic.
“I believe this is an opportunity for the world to come together and for people to understand that we’re all one,” she said. “We will get through this. Love, positivity and connection is what is important.”