Big Timber woman returns home after quarantine on cruise ship

Elias Baer – Yellowstone Newspapers
Friday, March 20, 2020

Big Timber resident Judy Vidack has arrived home safely after spending over a week quarantined aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland, Calif. 

Officials found evidence indicating that the ship was a breeding ground for more than 20 coronavirus infections tied to a previous voyage.

“I love to cruise,” Vidack said. “I’ve been on 12 or 13 different cruises. I guess I’m not sure I’ll love them anymore after all of this.”

The ship departed from San Francisco on Feb. 21 with over 3,500 passengers from 54 countries, then made a stop in Hawaii before diverting from its planned course to Mexico. 

On March 5, a military helicopter lowered coronavirus test kits onto the ship by rope and then retrieved them for analysis as the vessel idled off the San Francisco coast. 

The next day, passengers learned from Vice President Mike Pence’s televised press conference that 21 people on the ship tested positive for COVID-19, including 19 crew members and two passengers.

The ship docked in Oakland on March 9, in the east San Francisco Bay, after several days of idling off the coast as officials prepared a port site. Vidack was finally off-loaded on March 12, with little to no information as to what might happen next.

As the U.S. death toll has continued to climb, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the mayor of Oakland announced that none of the passengers from the ship would be released into the public before undergoing a 14-day quarantine.   

“We didn’t know anything. There were about 500 people left on board by the time they let us off. Everyone else had been let off and we didn’t know why we weren’t getting off,” Vidack said. 

In her desperation to find out some information about her situation, Vidack emailed the offices of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

“Tester and Bullock were great,” Vidack said. “They gave us more information than we already had. When I emailed Tester’s office I got an email back almost immediately. It just made me so glad to be a Montanan. We had other people from other states telling us that they couldn’t get ahold of their elected officials.”

Twenty-three people who needed acute medical care had been taken off the ship by late Monday afternoon, but it was not clear how many of them had tested positive for the virus, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California office of Emergency Services. 

Live TV footage showed at least one passenger, an older man wearing a face mask, climbing onto a stretcher and being lifted into the back of an ambulance.

U.S. passengers were to be flown or bussed from the port to military bases in California, Texas and Georgia for testing and quarantine. Foreign passengers were to be sent to their home countries. The 1,113 crew members were to be quarantined and treated aboard the ship. 

It wasn’t until Friday night, over 24 hours after leaving the boat, that Vidack finally figured out where they were headed, by powers of deduction alone. 

“We were put on a bus and heard from the news, not an official announcement, that we would be sent to a base for quarantine. Nobody told us anything. We were driven to an airfield in Oakland, but not a commercial airfield. And then we were driven right up to the plane,” Vidack said. “We figured out through talking to each other that we were either going to San Diego or Georgia, but we just didn’t know for sure. 

“Then the pilot came on over the intercom and said we would be in the air for four hours, so we figured it must not be San Diego. I just don’t understand: Why all the secrecy?” Vidack wondered, exasperated. 

Vidack, 72, was concerned for her safety and insisted on being tested for the virus, but she reported that no one would test her throughout the quarantine process. Gov. Bullock agreed she could receive a test when she reached Helena if she wanted one. 

After a long night of traveling, the plane touched down early Friday morning in Georgia at Dobbins Reserve Base, where the passengers were to be quarantined. 

“In Georgia the accommodations were much nicer (than on the boat). There was finally a washer and dryer, and we hadn’t had clean clothes in a while,” Vidack said.

Friday through Sunday Vidack was quarantined at Dobbins.

“Those days are kind of a blur,” she said. “We were told to pack a bag for 24 hours and leave the rest of our luggage in the hall on the cruise ship, and we were there much longer than that.”

“I want to make sure to emphasize how great the military people and the National Guard were. They were just wonderful. They treated us so well. They were so respectful and kind. I was really impressed,” Vidack said. 

Vidack tested negative for coronavirus on Sunday when she arrived in Helena. Despite the test result, she received a two-week quarantine order upon arrival in Helena. 

“We’re not exactly sure how long I’ll have to remain quarantined,” Vidack explained. “We got these orders for quarantine in Georgia for two weeks and then got a new two week order in Helena, so I think it’s two weeks from Sunday. But now that I’m in my own home, I can do it.”

Although Vidack’s luggage is still in Georgia, and her long-awaited getaway with her childhood friend did not go according to plan, but Vidack has maintained a positive attitude and has a lot of good things to say about the people she met along the way. 

“Well, it’s certainly been hectic, but it’s great now that I’m back home,” Vidack said.

Despite her lonely situation, Vidack is glad to be home where she can be comfortable. 

“I live alone and I’m not supposed to have visitors,” Vidack said. “My friends have been great, though. They’ve been bringing me groceries and dropping them off at the curb. I’ve probably been on the phone more than I ever have in the rest of my life.

Luckily, Vidack is an avid reader and has enjoyed spending her time reading mysteries. Right now she is reading “Stone Circle,” by Elly Griffiths.