CHESTERFIELD OBSERVER, RICH GRISET
It was supposed to be a 15-day cruise to paradise. It ended with nearly two weeks in quarantine, a lack of prescription medication, ongoing threats of exposure to a deadly virus and their trip making national headlines.
For Midlothian’s David and La Donna Wheatley, a Hawaiian getaway aboard the Grand Princess became a harrowing journey when their fellow passengers and members of the ship’s crew began getting infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
This was their second cruise to Hawaii; previous to this, the Wheatleys had also enjoyed cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska and Europe.
“It’s just a more relaxing way of traveling,” explains La Donna, 61. “You know where your next meal is. You don’t have to worry about finding a restaurant.”
David, a chemical engineer for a large chemical company, agrees.
“You unpack one time and you get to see different things,” says David, 63. “We also just enjoy relaxing on the ship.”
Immediately prior to the Wheatleys’ trip, from Feb. 11-21, the Grand Princess had embarked on a 10-day voyage to Mexico that led to the infections of at least three people, one of whom was California’s first death from COVID-19. Though the Wheatleys had heard about the coronavirus at that point, they hadn’t seen any travel advisories issued, and didn’t know about the earlier cases aboard the ship.
On Feb. 21, the Grand Princess departed from San Francisco for Hawaii. According to the couple, all seemed well aboard the ship until they were about to leave Hilo, Hawaii, on March 1. Instead of continuing on to Mexico as planned, the ship headed back to California. On March 5, they arrived off the coast of San Francisco and passengers were quarantined in their rooms as they waited for government authorities to develop a plan for their disembarkation.
On March 9, the Grand Princess pulled into a commercial dock in Oakland instead of San Francisco. And then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took over the ship. From that point on, the Wheatleys say, it was nearly impossible to obtain information about their situation. The Wheatleys’ luggage was taken on March 10, as they were initially supposed to disembark the ship that evening; it would be a week before they’d get a fresh change of clothes.
Meanwhile, La Donna’s prescription medication wasn’t being delivered by the CDC, and her food allergy to broccoli was routinely ignored. Meals delivered to their room frequently included broccoli.
“I was skipping meals, because it’s bad enough, anaphylactic shock would occur,” she says.
On March 12, the Wheatleys emailed the office of their congresswoman, 7th District Rep. Abigail Spanberger, to explain their situation, and the lack of prescription medication. Angele Russell, a district coordinator and outreach manager in Spanberger’s office, contacted the CDC, and later that afternoon, La Donna received her medication aboard the ship.
The Wheatleys disembarked the Grand Princess the evening of March 12. After previously being told they would be taken to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, they were informed they would instead be taken to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. Sitting in a bus in California as they waited for their plane to be prepared, the Wheatleys say they were shoulder to shoulder with their fellow cruisegoers, and that people were taking their masks off to eat snacks they had been given.
After arriving at Dobbins at 6 a.m. on March 13, the Wheatleys and other passengers were taken to a housing facility on the base. They say Dobbins wasn’t prepared for the influx of cruise ship passengers, and that their housing facility was surrounded by a chain-link fence that was bolted shut. For the first day or so, no information was given regarding how long they would be there or who they could contact about their situation. The Wheatleys stayed in touch with Russell, though, who was working with Gov. Ralph Northam’s office to provide them updates on the plan for their quarantine and return trip home.
During the couple’s stay at Dobbins, the power went out in their building, meaning there was no heat or air conditioning. There wasn’t bedding, and some people had to go without toilet paper and soap. And, to add insult to injury, the broccoli kept coming. It was only after the Wheatleys came across an officer who was sympathetic to their plight that they began receiving meals without broccoli.
“Meanwhile, the president is saying this is a great success,” La Donna says. “I am calling this an incarceration … I had no rights at all.”
Eventually, on March 18, the Wheatleys and 15 other Virginians were put on a charter flight to Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. From Dulles, the former passengers were put on a bus and delivered to their front doors. Though there had been health screenings during the trip, where passengers were checked for symptoms and had their temperatures taken, the Wheatleys say they were never tested for the coronavirus, nor did they see anyone else tested.
“We never had any symptoms,” La Donna adds. “We never had any temperature throughout this whole mess.”
The Wheatleys put the treatment they received squarely at the feet of the federal government and the Trump administration, and take issue with the way the administration has discussed the handling of the Grand Princess passengers. At a press conference on March 6, Vice President Mike Pence said 21 people on the Wheatleys’ voyage had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that everyone aboard would be tested. A week later, President Donald Trump thanked Pence for the “tremendous success out in Oakland” for coordinating getting passengers off of the Grand Princess.
“I do feel like Mr. Pence knowingly lied in his press conference,” La Donna says. “He knew that we weren’t going to get tests.” As for their return to Midlothian, the Wheatleys credit Spanberger’s office for their efforts.
“They were a godsend, a lifeline in a very stressful situation,” La Donna says. “It’s wonderful to know that we have state representatives who are stepping up and doing the job when the federal government is failing us.”
In a phone interview, Spanberger says the Wheatleys are just two constituents her office has helped return home in the midst of the pandemic, including people traveling in Pakistan, India and Latin America. Most cases have involved helping people arrange flights and engaging directly with the State Department on their behalf. A handful, she says, have required “a more aggressive type of intervention.”
She stresses that in moments of strife – including trouble getting home from overseas or help understanding unemployment benefits – citizens can reach out to their congressional offices for assistance.
“Our office is meant to be a resource,” she says. “If they have questions … they should absolutely contact our office and ask for help.”
As for the Wheatleys, they say they won’t completely write off going on a cruise in the future, but they would want to make sure measures were in place to ensure that this sort of thing won’t happen again.
“For me to cruise again, I’d have to see that the systems are in place that if you do get trapped on one of these kinds of trips, that there’s [an adequate] response,” David says.