Aboard cruise ship, waiting for Ebola scare to pass

Lonnie Harris wanted to give his wife, Marnie, a romantic and unforgettable 25th wedding anniversary. And he did.

There was a snorkeling excursion in Honduras, a horse and buggy ride in Belize, a surprise heart-shaped chocolate cake with flowers made in cream frosting and, to top it all off, an Ebola scare.

“It will be one to remember, that’s for sure,” said Lonnie Harris, an auto technician who lives in Arlington, Texas.

The couple celebrated last week aboard the Carnival Magic cruise ship, which made global headlines because one passenger – a lab supervisor at Texas Presbyterian Hospital Dallas – had possibly handled specimens of Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan, the only Ebola patient to die in the United States.

The governments of Belize and Mexico went into take-no-chances mode upon learning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the cruise line about the health care worker, who has not been identified.

Belize officials would not allow the worker and her husband to disembark to be flown back to the United States. Mexican officials went even further and denied Carnival Magic entry to its port in Cozumel, the scheduled third stop on the seven-day cruise.

But among the 4,000-plus passengers on the massive ship, there was no mutiny or mass panic, the Harrises said.

“Actually, most people were not afraid,” Marnie Harris said Monday as she returned to work at a youth organization. “Some were mad because they were inconvenienced, but I didn’t see or hear about anybody who was afraid.”

Most on board made the best of it, she said. It helped that the cruise line immediately announced that each passenger would receive a $200 credit to their ship account, as well as 50 percent off a future Carnival cruise.

“If anybody had panicked, once they started drinking with all the extra money they received, they weren’t panicking anymore,” she said with a laugh.

She believes the reason for the relative calm had a lot to do with a few factors: Ebola is not an airborne disease. It is spread through close contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, including blood, sweat, vomit, feces, urine, saliva or semen, according to the CDC.

The ship’s captain and staff gave continued assurances that the health care worker, who had voluntarily isolated herself in her cabin with her husband beginning Thursday, showed no symptoms and did not have a temperature.

“And the staff kept the ship spotless,” Marnie Harris said. “They were always cleaning.”

The cruise began Oct. 12 in Galveston, Texas. It was not until three days later, on Wednesday evening, that CDC officials notified Carnival Cruise Lines about the health care worker, Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz said in an email.

The CDC “originally requested medical monitoring by our medical staff but then on Thursday they requested the isolation as well,” she said.

Most of the passengers did not know anything was wrong until Thursday evening, when there was a delay in leaving Belize. The first information the Harrises got was from a comedian.

“A guy in the crowd yelled out: ‘Why aren’t we moving?’” Lonnie Harris said. “The comedian said there was a medical issue.”

That night, rumors began to circulate on the ship that there were mechanical problems. One person thought the ship was stuck, Lonnie Harris said.

It was not until the next morning that the passengers got an official explanation from the ship’s captain over the public address system.

“We were told the CDC had changed the regulations and these persons isolated themselves in their cabin because they did not want to cause any trauma or problems on the ship,” Marnie Harris said. “They had been self-monitoring the whole time and did not have a temperature or any symptoms.”

The announcement continued that the health care worker felt like she was free from the disease and was almost at the end of the 21-day incubation period, but this was a precaution the CDC wanted to take. Two nurses at Presbyterian had contracted Ebola. They are being treated at bio-containment hospitals in Bethesda, Md., and Atlanta.

“At first I wondered why that person could get on the ship, knowing she was exposed to Ebola,” Lonnie Harris said. “But once we found out the CDC had cleared her, we were then like: ‘Why did they do that?’”

Marnie Harris said she blames the CDC for the fiasco. “I feel they owe Carnival the money they paid to appease the customers on the ship,” she said.

De La Cruz said there are no plans for the Miami-based company to try to recoup its losses.

Carnival’s policy states that any passengers or crew who have visited or traveled through Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea within 21 days of a cruise departure will be denied boarding. Additionally, all guests must answer a series of health screening questions during embarkation and, if deemed necessary, submit to further medical screening prior to being allowed on board.

After failed attempts to get Mexico to reverse its decision, Carnival Magic sailed back to Galveston.

“We were a little bit disappointed,” Marnie Harris said. “But we bumped into one lady who was going to renew her vows and was not able to do that. I’m sure she was very disappointed.”

On Saturday, passengers watched a Coast Guard helicopter fly to the ship to collect a blood sample from the health care worker to be analyzed at a lab in Austin, Texas. When the ship returned to port on Sunday, the captain said the results were negative for Ebola.

That news allowed all the passengers to leave the ship without further monitoring.

“Even with all the craziness, and not getting to stop in Cozumel, we had a fabulous time,” Marnie Harris said. “There was so much to do on the ship. And on the last day we discovered an area we hadn’t even seen before. We told each other we have to come back to check it out.”