Couple separated by Pacific Ocean -- and coronavirus

"We've both come to better appreciate what really matters in life."

March 2, 2020, 3:31 PM

Mark Jorgensen was bemused to find himself, on Feb. 26, on the way to North Bay Medical Center in California in an ambulance followed by federal marshals, who "seemed a little excessive, but okay," he wrote on Facebook.

He had just tested positive for novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Mark's wife, Jerri Jorgensen, already was in quarantine, in a Japanese hospital, having tested positive less than two weeks earlier.

Mark, 55, and Jerri, 65, have unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a global health scare -- after doing little more than booking a vacation on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The Utah residents booked the trip with friends to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary, which was last fall, and their birthdays, both in January. They flew to Tokyo Jan. 20 and boarded the Diamond Princess to begin a two-week holiday that included stops in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan.

PHOTO: Mark Jorgensen posted this photo to his Facebook, Feb. 28, 2020.
Mark Jorgensen posted this photo to his Facebook, Feb. 28, 2020.
Mark Jorgensen/Facebook

At that point, news about the new coronavirus already was coming out of China, but the couple said they didn't give it much thought.

They had their temperatures taken in several ports as they disembarked, but beyond that the virus didn't concern them.

"I kind of pooh-poohed the mask idea, to be honest," Mark Jorgensen told ABC News. "We would never have guessed what would come."

Then, the last night of the cruise, Feb. 3, their bags were packed and waiting in the hallway when the ship's captain made an announcement at dinner.

One man, a passenger who'd disembarked in Hong Kong, had contracted the coronavirus, and no one could leave the ship for 24 hours -- all passengers first had to be screened.

The Japanese Health Ministry took over, and everyone on board had their temperatures taken. When the screening revealed more people had the virus, the entire ship was placed under quarantine.

The Jorgensens documented it all on Facebook.

'I'll call you when I know where I'm going to be'

At first, the passengers were allowed to mingle, do ship activities, take their meals in the dining areas. That changed Feb. 5. The Jorgensens and their friends were confined to their rooms. Over the next few days, news of additional passengers coming down with coronavirus was announced over the loudspeakers.

On Feb. 12, health care workers tested Mark and Jerri Jorgensen, swabbing their throats and noses.

"We'll take anything to break up the monotony at this point," Mark Jorgensen wrote on Facebook.

On Feb. 15, medical workers returned to their room and said Jerri Jorgensen had tested positive. She'd had a slight fever the night before but said she otherwise felt fine. The staff told her to pack a backpack, and within an hour she'd left in an ambulance.

"I'll call you when I know where I'm going to be," she told Mark Jorgensen, rushing out the door. She was taken to a hospital in Fukuyama -- a four-hour drive.

Mark Jorgensen remained in Yokohama aboard the Diamond Princess, waiting for a flight organized by the U.S. State Department to shuttle home stranded Americans.

"Mark could have stayed behind, but why?" Jerri Jorgensen said. After she tested positive for the new coronavirus, they couldn't have seen each other anyway.

PHOTO: Jerri Larson Jorgensen posted this video to her Facebook on Feb. 29, 2020, while in quarantine for coronavirus.
Jerri Larson Jorgensen posted this video to her Facebook on Feb. 29, 2020, while in quarantine for coronavirus.
Jerri Larson Jorgensen/Facebook

Plot twist

Mark Jorgensen began his long journey home on Feb. 16. He waited hours for everyone on the ship to be unloaded, placed on buses to Tokyo International Airport. He arrived at Travis Air Force Base in California the next morning.

Although still isolated, Jorgensen had a suite of rooms and was allowed to walk outside in a yard so long as he wore a mask and didn't get too close to other people.

The evacuated Americans were to be kept in quarantine for 14 days.

Then, Jorgensen got the news he'd been dreading: On Feb. 25, he was told that he'd tested positive for the coronavirus. That's how he found himself the next day on his way to North Bay Medical Center accompanied by federal marshals. The following day, he got moved again to Mercy Hospital in Folsom, which has better facilities to deal with him.

He said he's not sure how he caught the virus -- possibly from his wife, possibly from another passenger on the plane home. The virus is thought to have a long incubation period.

In order to be cleared to leave quarantine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control requires that nose and throat swabs taken from a patient test negative for two straight days. If they test positive, they have to wait 48 hours for their next test.

Time in quarantine

After Jerri Jorgensen's slight fever passed, neither Mark nor Jerri Jorgensen exhibited any symptoms, which is good but which also makes the quarantine time feel a bit unreal.

"Without Mark, it kinda sucks," Jerri Jorgensen told ABC News. "But we could be in quarantine in the same hospital and have the same amount of contact."

The two FaceTime regularly with each other and with family and friends. Twice a week, Jerri Jorgensen wakes up at 1:30 a.m. Japan time to join her Pilates class in Utah.

The first 2 1/2 days in Japan, Jerri Jorgensen didn't have reliable Wi-Fi or a good phone signal. She said she felt very disconnected. She begged the hospital staff for a newspaper and was given copies of The Japan Times, a local English-language newspaper.

PHOTO: Mark Jorgensen and Jerri Larson Jorgensen from videos posted to their Facebook accounts while in quarantine for coronavirus.
Mark Jorgensen and Jerri Larson Jorgensen from videos posted to their Facebook accounts while in quarantine for coronavirus.

"I would read them through three or four times," she added.

Then her internet access was restored.

"It's amazing how much we rely on technology," she said. "If I were just here in isolation, I would lose a connection to the world ... that's when trouble hits."

She regularly exchanges messages with a representative from the Diamond Princess and a liaison from the U.S. Embassy. She also uses Google translate to communicate with hospital staff, none of whom speak English.

Jerri and Mark Jorgensen's Facebook livestreams have racked up thousands of views.

The emotional connection is there, she said, but she hadn't realized how important physical touch was until now. Jerri Jorgensen hasn't touched another person since she said goodbye to her husband the day after Valentine's Day.

"I haven't had a hug in a week and a half," she said. "I haven't felt the sun on my face for a long time, and that's hard."

Both said despite the uncertainty and frustration, their quarantines weren't as bad as they could've been -- or perhaps as bad as portrayed by some media outlets. They said they've been treated extremely well by all involved health care workers, representatives of the CDC and employees of Diamond Cruises.

Focusing on the positives and accepting what they can't change, the couple, who run an addiction recovery center in Utah, are putting their teaching into practice.

Sometimes, Mark Jorgensen said, he feels like a lab rat walking around a cage.

"We're walking biohazards," he joked.

Jorgensen said it was helpful to remind himself everyone's doing their best, and with the virus being so new, no one knows what to expect. And because he's not actually sick, sometimes it's difficult to think about being so close to something so serious.

Jerri Jorgensen has fallen into something of a routine to help pass the time.

"It's a choice," she said. "I wake up every day and say, 'What can I do to make today amazing?'"

Apart from yoga, she's caught up on Netflix series, been in contact with friends, read a number of books and racked up a few thousand steps every day dancing to 80s music in her hospital room.

An ocean apart, but closer together

Jerri and Mark Jorgensen have spent a lot of time laughing about their situation on the phone.

"We're adding this to the uniqueness and craziness of our story," she joked. "If I feel anxious, I'm going to go do a plank. That'll take that anxiety right away."

That said, by the end of February, Jerri Jorgensen had enough me-time. She wants to get back into the world, including mountain biking in Utah. The CDC and Diamond Princess have organized a flight back to the U.S. on March 4. She hopes she's on it.

Mark Jorgensen has been moved around more than Jerri Jorgensen and hasn't settled into as much of a routine. But he said he's kept worry at bay by living intentionally, trying to take lessons from the whole experience.

He said he thinks he and Jerri may have grown closer despite -- or maybe because of -- the distance.

"Instead of going through life and taking her for granted, Jerri and I have been able to spend time talking to each other," he said. "Rather than sitting in front of a TV screen, we've had some important conversations."

On Feb. 19, Mark Jorgensen posted a photo on Facebook of Jerri Jorgensen making a silly face after eating tofu in Taiwan. She hadn't let him post it in January because she didn't think she looked good.

"During the past two weeks," he wrote, "we've both come to better appreciate what really matters in life, and that doesn't include how we appear to others. As evidence, I would offer our recent various interviews and videos. For what it's worth, I always thought this picture was adorable. I'm glad more people can now see it."

An end in sight

Over the weekend, Jerri Jorgensen posted a video on Facebook to say that she had finally tested negative, and the Diamond Princess was organizing for her to move to a hotel in Tokyo to wait for a flight home. The U.S. Embassy was working to take her name off the no-fly list. She was "bouncing off the walls giddy" to hear the news, and will make that plane back to the U.S. on March 4.

Meanwhile Mark Jorgensen got a step closer to home, too. On Friday night, as his wife was getting the all-clear, he got transferred by plane to a hospital in Salt Lake City – his third transfer since leaving Travis Airbase on Feb 26.

"I will be here for at least a few more days," Mark said in a Facebook video over the weekend.

He is still testing positive for coronavirus.

"I had fantasies of those two pending tests coming back negative and them sending me home tomorrow, but I think deep down I knew that wouldn’t be the case," he said.

He has a backlog of tests being processed from each of the hospitals he has been at and he’s having nose and throat swabs every day.

For the moment, it’s still a case of wait and see.

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