By CBS San Francisco Staff
OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Eddie Castellano waited years to take a cruise from the West Coast to Hawaii, but his dream had turned into a nightmare as he glanced out of his window aboard the Grand Princess.
On the dock, in an isolated section of the Port of Oakland, stood military personnel in space suits, carrying guns with barbed wire all around.
It was early March, the coronavirus seemed like an exotic disease — an illness raging elsewhere. Little did Castellano and millions of Americans known the scale and size of the medical drama about to unfold across the state and nation.
The Grand Princess, with more than a dozen passengers suffering from COVID symptoms, had been in a holding pattern outside the Golden Gate Bridge, cruising in circles while state and federal officials wrestled with the decision on whether or not to allow the boat to dock.
Finally, a deal was struck and as it cruised under the Golden Gate Bridge, photos flooded social media as the cruise liner become an early symbol of the outbreak.
The ship was allowed to unload under heavy security and the passengers taken to quarantine encampments at Travis Air Force Base in nearby Fairfield and other military bases elsewhere across the country. Foreign passengers were quickly airlifted out of the country.
Castellano spoke to KPIX 5 in the telephone interview from the stricken ship shortly after its arrival.
“It’s been a nightmare the last few days,” he said. “But today, I’m feeling great. I’m feeling hopeful that we finally after all these days I’m going to be able to get off this ship.”
Looking out his window, Castellano said the dockside was filled with military personnel and ambulances.
“I see some military outside the ship right now,” he said. “I see a lot of military. I see a lot of ambulances… It looks like a war zone. I’m terrified. I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve never been through something like this in my life before…I’m worried about the 3,000 people on this boat and their health.”
Passengers from the ship and from an earlier cruise to the Mexico Rivera from San Francisco would fall victim to the illness. Some would die, others would unknowingly spread the virus to relatives and friends.
The disease spread quickly from many other sources and a new term rolled into our vocabulary — “community spread without a known source of transmission.”
It was soon followed by a new lifestyle mantra — “socially distanced.”
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In an abundance of caution, county health directors across the San Francisco Bay Area issued a lockdown order in March. Workers were sent home and forced to evolve ways to work remotely.
Hotels, restaurants, airline travel, music venues, professional and collegiate sports, ski resorts, churches and places of worship, barber shops and hair salons, fitness gyms, day care centers, schools, colleges and universities either shut down or transitioned into some form of remote existence.
The once bustling streets of San Francisco fell eerily quiet. Cable cars stood empty and idle. Pedestrians disappeared from the city’s Embarcadero.
Over the ensuing months many famed San Francisco dining institutions and bars were forced to call it quits after years of being in business. Among them was Harrington’s Bar & Grill, Lucky 13, Farallon, the Cliff House, Lefty O’Doul’s, Cha-Am Thai, Specialty’s Cafe & Bakery and dozens of other neighborhood favorites.
Nursing homes and elderly care facilities locked their doors, forbidding all visitors. Toll takers disappeared from Bay Area bridges. Handshakes and hugs were verboten and mask wearing became mandated.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was heralded for his leadership in the early months only to face a growing recall effort by December from COVID fatigued Californians and business owners on the brink of financial ruin.
As a tidal wave of layoffs rolled over the state, lawmakers took extreme measures. Millions were allocated to buy old motels and apartment buildings to house the growing number of homeless. Moratoriums on rents and evictions were put into place statewide and on the local level spanning into early 2021.
Still the virus continued to rage, infecting more than 2 million Californians by late December and claiming 24,526 lives.
Among the first deaths in country was tech worker Patricia Dowd, who died of confirmed case of coronavirus in early February. Dowd was a 57-year-old senior manager for a Silicon Valley semiconductor firm when she became sick with flu-like symptoms in late January and passed away on Feb. 6th.
In the Bay Area, Santa Clara County was the hardest hit by the virus. By late December, the county had 67,423 confirmed cases since the pandemic began with 673 deaths. COVID had become the third leading cause of death in the county of more than 2 million residents.
Since those early days in February and March, the virus has taken California on a rollercoaster ride. There were surges early and then in the summer.
But then Californians were able to experience several months of near normalcy.
There appeared to be a light at the end of the dark tunnel as restaurants reopened outdoors and with limited indoor seating. Air travel began picking up, hotels welcomed guests, indoor church services resumed, barber shops and hair salons reopened, you could once again see a movie in a theater, but still without popcorn and some offices welcomed back non-essential staffers.
There was also plenty of progress on the vaccine front with trials nearing a successful end. Good news seemed to come from every Newsom weekly update. San Francisco was able to move into the Yellow Tier, among the state’s least restrictive status.
Then in a matter of weeks it all changed. The third surge began in early November and grew into a tidal wave of cases as thousands of Californians ignored pleas not to socially gather over the Thanksgiving holiday week.
Newsom and state health officials drew a line in the sand as they divided the state into five regions. If a region dipped below 15 percent availability in ICU rooms, then a new restrictive stay-at-home order and curfews would go into effect.
Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley regions were overwhelmed with new cases and ICU availability hovered around zero percent. Hospitals were forced to divert patients to less crowded facility by mid-December. Reopened businesses were forced to shut down again, angering small business owners who were barely surviving.
The health officers in six Bay Area counties preemptively ordered a new shutdown even as ICU availability was well above the 15 percent red line. By mid-December, however, the entire region was locked down as ICUs beds dipped below 10 percent.
“Our hospitals are at the brink, and they are just on the verge of being pushed over,” said Santa Clara County Director of Health Preparedness Dr. Ahmad Kamal.
“We cannot emphasize enough that this is a matter of life and death,” warned Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.
While the surge was filling up hospital rooms, the COVID vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer arrived and front line health care workers and the elderly in care facilities were the first to get the shots.
“This is a historic day for our city and, we hope, the start of a turning point in our response to COVID-19,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed as she watched the workers getting their vaccinations. “This has been a really tough year, and this is good news for our city and for the fight against COVID. It gives us some much-needed hope during an otherwise challenging and uncertain time.”
But the vaccines came too late to stem the surge.
“It will be a long (vaccine) rollout and too late for this surge,” said San Francisco Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax.
2020 had one last cruel surprise in store for the pandemic and the besieged health care professionals. A new and highly contagious strain of the coronavirus that had forced new severe shutdown orders in England was detected in San Diego County on Dec. 30th.
In a Facebook chat with Newsom, Dr. Anthony Fauci said mutations were expected to develop.
“There is a lot we know about it (the new strain) because our British colleagues have been studying it carefully,” Fauci explained. “And there are things we will soon learn more about it literally in the days and weeks that go by. It looks pretty clear from the UK group that in fact, the transmissibility of this new mutant is more efficient … Namely it’s able to bind with the receptors on cells better therefore it is transmitted better.”
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