From quarantined cruise ship to isolation at Lackland: SA native gives first-hand account of coronavirus evacuation

Air Force veteran quarantined at base 20 miles away from home

A “very slow” process has brought a local couple once quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship back to San Antonio, but they haven’t made it home. They won’t be “home” for the next two weeks.

Don and Naty were among 338 U.S. passengers that left the Yokohama port, where the cruise ship remains docked because of the virus that’s been spreading in Asia.

Two planes carried the passengers to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and Travis Air Force Base in Northern California early Monday. Seven people tested positive for the virus on each of those planes, and the majority were transported to the University of Nebraska’s Medical Center in Omaha.

Feds: 7 cruise ship passengers that landed at Lackland tested positive for coronavirus, sent to Nebraska

The number of Americans evacuated from Japan. (KSAT)

Don, an Air Force veteran, told KSAT 12 News that while they need to remain in quarantine at Lackland for 14 days, they are grateful to be back.

“That’s the hardest part, knowing that my nice, comfortable home is sitting 20 miles to the north of here,” he said. “But, again, we have to consider the fact that we don’t want to spread it to our friends or in our neighborhood or any place.”

He said they know three people from the cruise who tested positive for the virus, including a woman who sat “next to us every night at dinner.”

"She was positive and (her husband) was negative, so we just sent an email requesting information on her,” he said.

He said evacuees have received a warm welcome from JBSA-Lackland employees after they landed, and the process has remained smooth — yet “very slow” — from the ship to the flight to their visiting quarters.

While at the dorm, which he calls “very good compared to some others we’ve been in,” medics will check their temperatures twice a day, he said.

Don, an Air Force veteran, shared photos of his living quarters at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland while under quarantine. Don and his wife, Natty, were evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. (Courtesy, Don)

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Evacuees also received an iPhone to alert medics if their temperatures rise or if they feel symptoms.

“It’s a pretty good process overall, (they’re) really watching out after us," he said.

He added that officials have taken precautions to keep evacuees separated from the general public, such as security guards at gates making sure no one enters the quarantine area. Evacuees are able to walk around the compound, though, as long as they keep their masks on.

This marks the second time Don was mandated to stay at Lackland. In 1966, during his basic training, he was quarantined due to a meningitis outbreak.

Flight with quarantined passengers from cruise ship lands at JBSA-Lackland

The U.S. said it arranged the current evacuation because people on the Diamond Princess were at a high risk of exposure to the virus. For the departing Americans, the evacuation cut short a 14-day quarantine that began aboard the cruise ship Feb. 5.

The State Department announced later that 14 of the evacuees received confirmed they had the virus but were allowed to board the flight because they did not have symptoms. They were being isolated separately from other passengers on the flight, the U.S. State and Health and Human Services said in a joint statement.

Japanese troops helped transport 338 U.S. passengers on 14 buses from Yokohama port to a Tokyo airport, Japan’s Defense Minister Taro Kono tweeted. Around 60 Americans who were hospitalized with coronavirus or chose to stay on the ship remain in Japan.

Department of Defense extends JBSA-Lackland quarantine zone availability to mid-March

After arriving in the U.S., all of the passengers must go through another 14 days of quarantine at the military facilities — meaning they will have been under quarantine for a total of nearly four weeks. The Department of Defense said JBSA-Lackland’s coronavirus quarantine zone will remain available to patients through mid-March.

One known coronavirus patient remains in San Antonio (or Texas) — at the Methodist Hospital | Texsan in Balcones Heights — while 235 are in quarantine at Lackland.

The outbreak that began in China has affected more than 71,000 people globally, and has caused more than 1,770 deaths.

About the Authors:

Rebecca Salinas has worked in digital news for more than 10 years and joined KSAT in 2019. She reports on a variety of topics for KSAT 12 News.

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.