By Lori Salerno
We pulled in front of the lab in Santa Fe Springs, California and the sign read, “COVID-19 IgG and IgM Rapid Antibody Screen.”
My husband Dan and I believed we could have been infected with the coronavirus while on one of those ill-fated Asian cruises that all the media reported about during the month of February when the pandemic first began.
Behind the Mask
I popped my head in the open doorway. “Good morning.” I greeted the lab technician at the front desk, my words are muffled behind my war-torn N95 mask.
“Come in.” The lab tech beckoned me from behind the window. “You’re timing is perfect.” He pointed to the keypad in front of me. “Sign in.” He instructed.
I’m was a walk-in this morning for the COVID-19 antibody test. I heard on the news those who have been diagnosed with or suspect they contracted COVID-19 are able to take this test and determine if they have the antibodies in their blood, which would prove they had the virus and are free to go about life as normal.
Normal life? Ha!
Life as normal. Ha. This is day 107 of self-isolation for me and my husband. I recounted to the technician that we were in contact with someone in Asia who tested positive for COVID-19.
He handed me a clipboard of paperwork to fill out and I returned to the seclusion of our car.
The Epicenter: Hong Kong
Dan and I traveled to the epicenter of the outbreak in Hong Kong when the virus was seeding travelers who later boarded planes, trains, and ships, carrying the pathogen to their homes located all around the world.
In our minds, we believed there is a high probability that we were infected with the virus.
After two weeks adrift at sea, we boarded a very unromantic Valentine’s Day flight from Cambodia where the Holland America ms Westerdam was docked to Kuala Lumpur.
Ding, Ding, Ding. Three bells. I froze in place. That was the call when the ship’s captain had an announcement. Except for this time, we were on a Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur.
The cabin steward announced over the intercom, “Please secure your tray tables and bring your seats into an upright position. According to Malaysia Airlines regulations, we will begin spraying the cabin. You may cover your face.”
You can cover your face? I thought to myself.
Concurrently, I heard a large volume of aerosol deployed into the cabin. I peeked out from under the blanket and I was immediately clouded by the gray mist filling the plane. A cabin steward was walking down the middle of the aisle releasing the contents of two large cans with one in each hand. It tasted like a mixture of pesticide and Lysol.
A Buzz in the Plane Cabin
This began a buzz in the cabin, everyone speculating about the spray. The woman across the aisle and up a couple of seats began coughing heavily again. This must have irritated her lungs.
Her left-hand whipped to her mouth, hack, hack, hack – a common scene displayed by dozens of passengers over the past two weeks on the ms Westerdam.
Someone on this flight has got to have the virus. We’re going to die in quarantine like the passengers of the Diamond Princess. I thought to myself.
Taking it Further
This septuagenarian took it one step further, though. As she stood preparing to exit the plane, she pulled out of her pocket an N95 respirator mask, placed it over her nose and mouth, careful not to mess her perfectly coiffed bleached up-do, and proceeded to walk off the plane, touching the top of every seat on the left side on her way out.
I cringed when I saw others file into the lane behind her grabbing hold of each seat top for support, just where she touched.
Hands in pocket, mask in place, I walked out of the plane. Steered past an infrared scanning camera, checking for anyone exhibiting a fever, I smiled when I saw the white glow across our foreheads and continued through the waiting room with the main airport in sight.
After being stranded for two-weeks in Asia on a pariah ship rumored to be infected with the coronavirus, we could finally fly home.
Herded into a Large Room
As all 145 of us on the Malaysia Airlines flight from Cambodia were herded into the large room, our smiles swiftly changed once we realized there was no exit.
Panic set in with about half the passengers converging around the entrance of the room, protesting the detainment.
The Malaysian Airline staff, wearing masks and gloves instructed us over the speaker in broken English that we had to stay in the room until the authorities provided more instruction.
That evening a woman from our flight tested positive for the coronavirus which halted all flights for Westerdam passengers.
Six of us unlucky Westerdam passengers were held against our wishes in the airport, sleeping on the floor, until we either tested negative and given written permission to leave the country or tested positive and placed in a 14-day quarantine to battle the virus.
Three days later the six of us were escorted by armed agents and Malaysian officials to a make-shift medical tent erected specifically for us in the basement of the airport where a six-person medical team in personal protective equipment, which looked like a scene from the movie “Outbreak,” swabbed and cultured our sputum.
Eight hours after collection of the nose and throat specimens, the Minister of Health gave us written authorization of our negative status and freed us to leave the country.
Back to the U.S.
The day Dan and I returned to the U.S. with the negative COVID-19 paperwork, the CDC placed us in home quarantine for two more weeks and branded us with the Scarlet Letter “C” for coronavirus.
At that time the virus hadn’t made its way to the U.S., and all our friends, neighbors, and relatives acted as if we had brought home the bug as a souvenir to share with everyone in our town.
The hysteria and paranoia surrounding us wasn’t a surprise, on the second day of our dream cruise, all Asian ports denied us entry for the same fear just two weeks earlier.
Even our own country wouldn’t provide us a safe harbor to dock in Guam.
Today we are sheltering in our car in Santa Fe Springs awaiting our antibody results. “What if we are positive?” I tossed the question to Dan.
“I guess, if we are positive, then that means we contracted the virus either on the ship like everyone suspected or during one of our travels home.”
He’s right, a positive for antibodies would give way to “I told you so’s” by others around the world who originally believed we were positive.
If I was found positive for having had COVID-19; though, I could volunteer or donate my plasma, and Dan and I could also visit his mother who has been isolated at her memory care facility. We like to visit her once a month, but with the COVID-19 social isolation orders, no visitors are allowed at nursing homes.
“What if we are negative for antibodies?” I ask Dan.
“If it’s negative, then I guess we’ve been doing a good job at protecting ourselves from contracting the virus and we need to keep doing what we’re doing.”
His thinking is pragmatic, but part of me wants the test to come back negative for selfish reasons. A negative result would help to clear our name. When we returned, there was skepticism behind the negative test results with us and other Westerdam passengers, and many so-called friends and neighbors purposely avoided and shunned us from the community.
The most anxious tended to be families with children and teens who feared we would compromise the health of their brood.
Before the Super-spreaders
That was before everyone learned of the risky behavior by wandering teenagers and college students who act as super-spreaders of the virus by bringing it home to their parents and grandparents.
Part of me wanted to be able to thumb my nose at them, over my face mask of course, and say, “See, I told you we weren’t infected, and you treated us like pariahs.”
The irony is that now everyone is a suspected carrier. We are all in the same boat so to speak.
Here Comes the Nurse
The female nurse walked through the open glass door of the testing center and toward our car. I quickly snapped my mask back into place and step out of the car to greet her.
She pointed to the checkmark on the paper and says, “You both are negative for COVID-19 antibodies. You may have come into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, but you did not contract the virus yourself.”
Two weeks after this test, Dan’s mother passed away. We never got the chance to say goodbye.
Lori Salerno (@LSalernoAuthor) is a Southern California author of the forthcoming memoir, Pariah Ship: One Couple’s Dream Cruise Turns Coronavirus Nightmare