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First Utahn confirmed to have coronavirus, receiving treatment in Japanese hospital

Tooele man was among passengers quarantined on cruise ship since last week

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A security guard stands near the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Yokohama, near Tokyo. Life on board the luxury cruise ship, which has dozens of cases of a new virus, can include fear, excitement and soul-crushing boredom, according to interviews by The Associated Press with passengers and a stream of tweets and YouTube videos.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A Tooele County man who has been quarantined aboard a cruise ship has been confirmed to have coronavirus, making him the first known Utahn to be infected amid the outbreak.

“John has tested Positive for the Corona Virus!” his wife, Melanie Haering posted on Facebook Thursday night (Friday afternoon in Japan). “He does not have a fever and feels no symptoms. There is no treatment only a waiting game til the virus subsides. He gets tested again in 48 hours and if it’s positive again, he waits another 48 hours for another test. If that test is negative, he gets tested in 24 hrs and if two tests in a row come up negative he is free to leave.”

John Haering was taken the night before to a hospital about an hour away from where the cruise ship is docked after suffering flu-like symptoms for about three days, according to his wife. Melanie Haering remains quarantined on the ship, where she and other passengers have been confined since Jan. 6. In Facebook posts she described her husband’s symptoms as including a fever, nausea and a rash, “like a heavy case of the flu.”

In a text to the Deseret News Wednesday night, before John Haering’s test came back positive, Melanie Haering said her husband had just left for the hospital and she wondered why he wasn’t swabbed when he first developed a fever on Monday.

“We got a call from one of the ship’s medical teams, and they have decided to transport John to a hospital,” Melanie Haering said in a Facebook post about 1 a.m. Thursday, which was Thursday evening in Japan. “I have no idea which one he will be at. Even though he felt better, he needs the proper care to find out about this virus. It’s hard being separated from him, and as soon as I hear more information, I will pass it on. We appreciate the overwhelming love and prayers that have been offered on our behalf. Believe me, we can feel them.”

John and Melanie Haering pose for a photo in Hong Kong. The couple is traveling aboard a cruise ship that has been quarantined in Japan due to exposure to the novel coronavirus.

John and Melanie Haering pose for a photo in Hong Kong. The couple is traveling aboard a cruise ship that has been quarantined in Japan due to exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Haering family

While waiting for his test results Thursday, Melanie Haering said her husband was in isolation and had been without a phone or way to communicate with her for several hours.

“It’s just really up in the air,” she said, adding that he was feeling better. “I know he feels alone right now.”

When her husband asked for water at the medical facility, she said he was told he had to pay for it. The couple’s cruise line, Princess Cruises, had water delivered, and family members at home have also rallied support from members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Japan.

“Our son, JJ, and his wife, Mindy Haering, have arranged for cases of water, toothpaste, shampoo and soap to be dropped to him by the local LDS mission president,” she wrote. “He has only been given tea and he has to purchase his own water and these toiletries. Thank you for everyone’s, prayers, love and energy given to both of us during this time.”

The Haerings are one of two Utah couples on the ship, which carried thousands of passengers, on a 29-day trip that included stops in Kagoshima, Tokyo, Okinawa, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand. St. George resident Mark Jorgensen, who is traveling with his wife, Jerri, said they began hearing about the coronavirus — now named COVID-19 — a day or two into the cruise, although they weren’t worried about being exposed to it.

“There is a new strain of flu every year,” Jorgensen said. “But over the course of this trip, we started to hear more and more.”

The couple enjoyed a memorable trip that included celebrating the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong. But when they docked in Okinawa, one of the last stops, the screening process was so tight it took four hours for passengers to leave the ship.

“We didn’t see much of that place,” Jorgensen said. “We walked around a couple of hours, and then spent two more days at sea. Then, on the last day, we packed our bags before dinner, put them in the hall, and then they announced at dinner that someone who started the cruise in Tokyo had gotten off in Hong Kong because he wasn’t feeling well. He didn’t tell anyone he was sick. He just got off and stayed off. A couple of days later, he got tested, and it was coronavirus.”

After that, officials said they needed 24 hours to screen passengers. 

“All through the night they were screening people,” he said. “They found several people with temperatures, tested them and found 10 people positive. That’s when they said we’d be quarantined for two weeks.”

Somehow passengers were led to believe that two-week clock started over every time a new case was diagnosed. 

“That was distressing,” Jorgensen said, noting new cases have been found every day. “But then we got a message from the embassy that our quarantine was scheduled to end on Feb. 19, and we could fly home on commercial flights. And there wouldn’t be further quarantine in the U.S.”

Jorgensen kept track of the number of patients diagnosed each day — 10, 10, 2, 65, 38, 44. Now with 218 patients, the ship is reported to have the highest concentration of coronavirus victims outside China. 

“I’m kind of a unique case,” Jorgensen said. “I am immunosuppressed because I’ve had two kidney transplants (1995 and 2015).”

The quarantine confines passengers to their rooms for days at a time.

“We can’t leave our rooms for any reason, except when they call groups, sections, to go on to the upper deck to walk around for an hour. We’ve had two of those (hours) since last Wednesday.”

Passengers found out Friday local time the Princess Cruise line had announced a voluntary guest disembarkation plan that allowed guests to move to housing facilities in Japan, where they can complete the quarantine that is still scheduled to end Feb. 19.

“The most medically vulnerable guests will be in the first phase, including older adults with pre-existing health conditions,” the announcement said.

None of the Utah passengers know if they will be in that first phase, but Jorgensen said after reading what the accommodations will be, he’d rather finish the quarantine on the ship.

Jorgensen is receiving medication for free, and the cruise line has told the couple it will be refunding the cost of their trip — including airfare. 

Both couples have posted upbeat messages on Facebook, thanking family and friends for their support, and the cruise line for the way they’ve handled the situation.

“They’ve been amazing,” Jerri Jorgensen said in a Facebook Live video posted Wednesday night. “Just the logistical nightmare. That’s a huge curveball ... a situation where everyone has to have room service three times a day.”

The Jorgensens were interviewed for an appearance on the “Today Show” that aired Thursday. It was their second appearance.

They began posting Facebook Live videos because they’ve been overwhelmed with calls, texts, emails and media requests. 

“We’re not as famous as the Kardashians,” Mark Jorgensen said. “But twice as sexy.”

Meanwhile, a third Utah couple is quarantined on a Holland America ship — Steve and June Gulbrandsen, of Bountiful. They were at sea for 13 days, unable to find a welcoming port, until Cambodia finally allowed them to dock Wednesday. Unlike those on the Diamond Princess, the Gulbrandsens have been confined to the ship, but not to their room.

“Things are changing about every 12 hours,” said their daughter Kim Heaton, who is a travel agent. “After nobody would let them dock anywhere, I was making phone calls, and I started following staff and crew on Twitter, getting as much information as I could. ... Nobody on board was sick. ... The bigger concern was if they would ever be able to dock somewhere.”

The ship was allowed to pick up supplies 13 days ago, but was denied access to a port by Japan, Thailand, Guam and the Philippines. Heaton worried that her mom would run out of medication before the ship was able to dock, and her fear was turning to frustration and anger when Cambodia unexpectedly welcomed the ship.

“It has been a really interesting experience for them,” she said. “My parents were being really generous saying, ‘Who can blame them? They don’t know if anyone is sick ... they have to protect themselves. It’s been so touching to read (on social media) how the people in Cambodia have been writing words of welcome and letting them know they’re here to welcome them. They’ve been refugees; they want everyone to feel safe and welcome and have everything they need.”

On the first morning after the ship docked, the country’s prime minister was there to welcome the first passengers off the ship.

“They gave them traditional scarves and other gifts,” Heaton said. “It was so amazing. They don’t have anything to give, but they’re being so amazing and so kind. Everyone else was scared and protecting themselves, but it’s kind of a beautiful thing to see the way Cambodia has reacted.”

Heaton said Cambodian officials tested those who had any symptoms, even runny noses, which was about 20 people, and all the tests have been negative. As of Thursday night in Utah — or midday Friday in Cambodia — Holland America was already making travel arrangements for passengers.

The airport near the dock is so small, officials are chartering flights to larger airports and then flying passengers home from there. Like Princess Cruises, Holland America has offered all of its passengers a free cruise.

“My dad is a little hesitant, but my mom is ready to go,” Heaton said. “Nothing like this has ever happened before. ... I think it’s causing more panic than anything else.”

Contributing: Garna Mejia