‘You’ve got to be thankful’

Cullman couple reflects on year since being quarantined on the Grand Princess

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June and Len Brooks (Courtesy of June Brooks)

CULLMAN, Ala. – It has been almost a full year since former three-term (1987-2005) Cullman County District Attorney Len Brooks and his wife, June Brooks, the former chair of the Wallace State Community College Paralegal and Political Science Departments, walked off the Grand Princess cruise ship in Oakland, California into a new reality. Now, both have had their first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

The pandemic was just gaining a foothold around the world, and June Brooks said she remembers hearing of one case in Washington state, when the couple departed Feb. 21, 2020 on a cruise to Hawaii.

“Len, in 2019, he had been diagnosed with melanoma, and he had had to have some surgeries,” said June Brooks. “I’m thinking, ‘He needs to just get away,’ so I picked up that cruise to Hawaii thinking, ‘That’s great.’ It’s not to China. The virus is in China. I think by the time we were going to go there was one guy out in the state of Washington that had had it. We had heard of that, and I thought, ‘That’s not too bad…we should be fine. It shouldn’t be a problem,’ and boy, surprise!”

She continued, “When we got on the ship, the risk was very low. We only knew of that one person at that point.”

She said everything was great at first. Len Brooks took ukulele lessons, and she was taking hula lessons. The couple saw the whales in Hawaii and took a helicopter tour over a volcano.

It wasn’t until they were on the ship on the way home when they first knew something was wrong. They received a letter from the ship’s chief medical officer March 4, 2020.

“It was on the way back that we found out somebody on the ship had COVID,” said June Brooks, who said they were told a person who got off the ship back on Feb. 21 in San Francisco had gotten sick and had been hospitalized with COVID. “As far as we know, the ship found out the day we got the letter.”

She said the letter asked people to report to the ship’s doctor if they had symptoms or felt sick.

“They lowered, from a helicopter, down a rope, they lowered these guys from the CDC. It was pretty wild!” she remembered.

At the time, NBC News reported, “The California Air National Guard delivered 46 tests to the Grand Princess, which has been offshore since Wednesday. Of the 46 passengers tested, (Vice President Mike) Pence said 21 people, 19 employees and two passengers, had tested positive. Twenty-four tested negative, and one was inconclusive, Pence said.”

June Brooks said they weren’t able to leave their room on the ship, but they had a balcony, which they would go out on for fresh air. They couldn’t open their room door without being masked. The couple watched a lot of television.

“We were doing a holding pattern off the coast of California, because San Francisco wouldn’t let us dock, so we were out there going around in circles. We had a balcony. I’m out the balcony and it hit me, ‘You know what? Even if we get home- at that point we didn’t know if we would or not- even if we get home we’re still going to be in quarantine until they get a vaccine, and that could be years!”

It was during that quarantine time onboard the ship, she said, when the couple watched a program on public television about Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology in vaccines.

“I told Len, I said, ‘Wow. They need to do that with this COVID, which is exactly what has come to pass!” she exclaimed. “We have these mRNA vaccines for the first time. I didn’t think that it would be possible that it would be this fast, that within a year we would have a vaccine, so we’re pretty excited about it.”

The ship circled off the coast of California for several days before it was allowed to dock in Oakland March 9, 2020.

“It was kind of spooky,” said June Brooks. “They put us on a bus, and we had blue lights, escorts…law enforcement. They took us right out on the tarmac, and we got right on a plane, and they wouldn’t tell us where we were going. We were on the plane with our masks, and once we got in the air, they told us we were going to San Antonio.”

When the passengers arrived in San Antonio, they were taken to Lackland Air Force Base.

“We had a one-bedroom apartment, and all the people in our group- there were about 100 people in our group- they were all assigned these one-bedroom apartments on a military base,” she said. “We could walk around, but we couldn’t get near anybody. We had to stay socially-distanced, but we could walk around in the parking lot. They had put chain-link fence all around this complex, and there were armed guards outside the fence. We’d never been in a situation like that, you know?”

The Brookses were at Lackland for two weeks before coming home to Cullman, where, upon arrival they said, the change in protocols was frightening.

“It was frightening to us; it was scary,” said June Brooks. “We had been where everybody was masked and everybody social distanced. So when we came here and saw there were people walking around without masks on it was scary. We stayed home most of the time.”

Said Len Brooks, “It was scary. After having been through what we went through- that real strict regimen they put us under- we figured that’s what everyone was going to be acting like when we got back. Frightening is a good word. And shocking.”

“We felt like we had to stay home to stay safe,” said June Brooks. “We haven’t been inside a store or eaten in a restaurant. We’ve both learned to shop online. We cook a lot here.”

Laughing, she said they’ve given each other haircuts. On a more serious note, she shared the family did not do Thanksgiving or Christmas. They’re planning to celebrate both, along with Easter, this spring.

The couple said they’ve known members of the community who have been sick or died from COVID-19, but their family has stayed relatively safe.

“We have been blessed, fortunately, that our family has been relatively safe,” said June Brooks. “One of my nephews and his family had it, and they recovered, but the rest of the family has been safe. The gamble is you don’t know. We might get it and be fine, but we might get it and be one of those on a ventilator and die. It’s scary, and I’m just not that big a gambler; I’ve never been that lucky. We’ve just taken all the precautions. It’s very, very disturbing to see any kind of an illness as widespread as this, and the devastation it’s caused. It’s so sad, in our community, some of the people who have passed and some way too early. It’s just heart wrenching.”

The couple is now feeling a sense of relief after getting the first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on March 29 at the Cullman County Health Department. They get their second doses Feb. 26.

“We’re very thankful to be where we are now, as far as the process” Len Brooks said. “Even though we were on the ship when it broke out and in quarantine, and throughout the whole year, you’ve got to be thankful because in that time they have developed a vaccine, and they’ve made it available, and we now have a scientifically-based national plan. We’ve been fortunate enough to get the vaccine and to be in a position that we do, hopefully along with everyone else, follow the guidelines, and do everything we’re supposed to do to eliminate the pandemic.”

June Brooks said passengers from the Grand Princess stay in touch in a Facebook group. She said of the 3,533 passengers, 131 tested positive. Five of those died.

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Wendy Sack

wendy@cullmantribune.com