COVID on a cruise: How a breakthrough case sent one couple from an ocean view balcony to the 'dungeon'

  • A Connecticut couple spent the last three nights of the cruise in isolation in the bowels of Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas.
  • Even with strict cruise line protocols, the CDC rates cruising a level 3, its second-highest level.
  • The couple was flown home by private jet for free as is Royal Caribbean's COVID policy.

Four nights into their Caribbean cruise last week, Brittany and Steven Loiler treated themselves to a decadent dinner to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.

At Chops Grille, a specialty restaurant passengers pay extra to dine in on Royal Caribbean ships, they ordered ribeye steaks, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach and other side dishes. They toasted with two bottles of Caymus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was one of the last meals on their vacation that wasn’t served by someone in a hazmat suit.

The Connecticut couple spent the last three nights of the cruise in isolation in the bowels of Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Odyssey of the Seas, after testing positive for COVID-19. Both were vaccinated and tested negative for coronavirus before departure, as required by Royal Caribbean.

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Breakthrough cases are not an uncommon occurrence, with at least 17 passengers and crew on a Norwegian Cruise Line sailing out of New Orleans testing positive on a sailing around the same time as Odyssey's. Even with strict cruise line protocols, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates cruising a level 3, its second-highest level.

"We've never said that cruising will be a zero-risk activity," Capt. Aimee Treffiletti, who leads the CDC's maritime unit, told USA TODAY in late October. "I think we've all always expected that cases would be identified."

Brittany Loiler, 29, shared details about her experience after testing positive for COVID on a cruise ship with USA TODAY. (Her story briefly includes my mom and me as we spent time next to her in the ship's casino one night and were classified as close contacts.)

"It was legitimately the craziest experience of my life," Loiler said.  

Vaccinated and having fun: COVID 'never entered our minds'

The Loilers are avid cruisers and big Royal Caribbean fans, and this wasn't their first cruise since sailing resumed in the U.S. waters this summer. They took a three-nightRoyal Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas in October and had no health issues.

The first several days on their eight-night Odyssey of the Seas cruise to the southern Caribbean also went smoothly. The couple and eight friends and family members they were traveling with drank martinis at the ship’s signature bar; hung out for hours at the pool on Royal Caribbean's private island in the Bahamas; sunbathed on Eagle Beach in Aruba; danced while the band played on the pool deck; gambled in the casino; and met for pizza around 11 p.m. every night before bed.

Steven and Brittany Loiler in the main dining room on Royal Caribbean's Odyssey of the Seas cruise ship in December, 2021. The Connecticut couple, on vacation to celebrate their first anniversary, tested positive for COVID-19 on the ship.

Steven Loiler started feeling congested the night of their fancy dinner but brushed it off as allergies and took some medicine. Brittany Loiler felt fine and headed to the casino for roulette.

The next day, she woke up with a stiff neck and some cold symptoms but was otherwise fine. They spent the day on the beach in Aruba, an island just off the coast of Venezuela.

"I was just laying in a chair not thinking anything of it," she said. "I didn't feel great but I was fine."

She slept most of the afternoon when they returned to their cabin, woke up, took some Tylenol and rallied for dinner in the ship's dining room with the group.

"Maybe you got too much sun," one of her friends said.

COVID-19, Loiler said, "never entered our minds."

If you test positive for COVID, you have to disembark

The Odyssey of the Seas pulled into port in the Dutch island of Curacao on Thursday and Loiler woke up with the worst stiff neck she's ever had, body aches and a "terrible, wet, burning cough that wouldn't stop."

She called the ship's medical center to see if she could get some Dayquil and other over-the-counter medicine in time to enjoy the rest of the cruise. She still didn't think it was COVID but the medical staff wasn't taking any chances, especially after hearing Steven cough in the background.

"Stay in your room. We're going to come up. We have to test you,' " she recalled being told. "The first thing out of my mouth was, 'Well, what if it’s positive?' "

Loiler said she was told she was going to be tested for COVID, Influenza A and B, and RSV, a respiratory illness.

If COVID came back positive, she said was told, they would be disembarked from the ship because Royal Caribbean doesn't like to "act as a hospital." Loiler was worried about getting stuck in a Curacao hospital far from home.

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'I hate to tell you this, but you're positive': Breakthrough cases

An hour later, the phone in their cabin on Deck 10 rang and the doctor delivered bad news about Brittany's test.

"I hate to tell you this, but you're positive," she was told.

The next few hours became a blur.

Loiler was told a nurse would come up to the cabin to do bloodwork, followed by a chest exam in the medical center to check her lungs.

The cruise line said it was searching for a private plane to get them out of Curacao before the ship departed that evening, and told her to pack their stuff as quickly as they could.

"Meanwhile, I'm dying because I don't feel good," she said.

Loiler was crying hysterically when the phone in the cabin rang with more bad news: her husband's test was positive. He, too, had to have his bloodwork checked in the room followed by a chest exam.

In the midst of it all, ship officials were calling to get information on fellow passengers they recently spent time with so they could contact them to be tested. Loiler, still unsure of their flight plans, lost her patience.

"At one point, I said, you guys need to stop interrogating me because I can't handle this right now," she said. "My whole world is flipped upside down...I'm worried about me and my husband. We were told we are getting off the ship."

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An escort from Deck 10 to Deck 3

Their luggage was picked up just after lunchtime and the couple was escorted from their cabin to the medical center on Deck 3 in a scene Loiler said was straight out of a movie. 

Crew members were in hazmat suits, with a couple spraying disinfectant behind them as they walked from their cabin to the elevator on 10 and from the elevator on three to the medical center. Areas normally open for passengers heading from or returning to their cabins were blocked off, she said, and there were officials stationed near the stairwells to stop any guests from entering.

The couple didn't see another guest on the way and when they zigzagged through non-public areas she started crying because she felt crew members were staring at them.

"It was the most uncomfortable thing," she said.

Next stop: a cabin in the 'red zone'

The chest exams were clear and the couple was moved down the hall to a room in the ship's isolation area, which Royal Caribbean calls the red zone. It was an ocean view room but with a window that didn't open and no balcony like they booked.

The cruise line gave them Tylenol, nasal spray and cough syrup and told them room service was on the house. (There is usually an $8 delivery charge plus gratuity.)

The room was supposed to be their home for just a few hours until their flight out of Curacao but the cruise line called just before dinner to say it couldn't arrange a private flight, Loiler said.

Room 3198 would be home for the next three nights, until the cruise ended with the ship's arrival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

The Loilers were told they would be flown home, for free as is Royal Caribbean's COVID policy, by private jet on Sunday. (Cruise lines each have their own policies for when passengers test positive for COVID.)

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Until then, they couldn't leave the room but could watch movies and get online for free (there are usually charges) in addition to the room service.

Loiler said she appreciated the gestures but was frustrated and at one point raised her voice with cruise line representatives.

"I was like, 'You guys need to do right by this,' " she said. " I did everything (before the cruise) you asked me to do. I washed my hands and I do everything, and now look at the situation. I can't even explain how upset I was."

She was also worried her travel companions, which included her mother-in-law, might test positive. All were notified about COVID exposure with a call to their cabins or as they returned to the ship, and told to stay in or go to their rooms and wait for an in-room test. Royal Caribbean did not make any public announcements about the positive tests, nor test all passengers.

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The call no one wants: 'You're a close contact'

During the call to my cabin about COVID exposure, a doctor asked about symptoms (I had none) and said a nurse would come to the cabin to do a test. The doctor said there might be a delay because of a separate medical emergency on the ship. I asked him where I was exposed and he said it was two nights earlier in the casino (the ship used video as part of its contact tracing.)

I asked about my mother, who was also in the casino at the same time, but was told she wasn't on the list. The call about her COVID exposure came shortly after so we both had had to isolate. (It would be hours before we found out it was the Loilers, whom my sister happens to know through work.)

A couple hours later, the nurse arrived in a hazmat suit, took our temperatures and swabbed our noses. It was my first COVID test in a bathing suit.

We, too, were offered free room service (including alcohol since we had the beverage package) and quickly ordered chicken wings, cheesecake, chocolate cake, wine and Diet Coke for a balcony happy hour. It came with a red biohazard bag to throw the leftovers in and put outside the door.

Royal Caribbean usually charges a delivery fee and 18% gratuity for room service but waives those charges when passengers are forced to isolate after COVID exposure or a positive COVID test.

We felt fine and joked about what we would do if only one of us tested positive, fretted about where we would end up if both of us tested positive since we couldn't fly home on our scheduled Southwest flights and jumped every time the phone rang.

Our quarantine was over around 6 p.m., when we each got a call that we tested negative.

The eight other travelers in the Loilers' group also tested negative. They stayed in touch via phone for the rest of the cruise.

Peanut butter & jelly from the kids' menu

Loiler said someone from guest services called every day like clockwork to take their room service order for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And when they got sick of the room service menu they let them order off of the dining room menu. 

They had blueberry pancakes and bacon, peanut butter & jelly off the kids menu for lunch, and different items for dinner including spaghetti with butter.

They grew tired of the food, which often arrived cold and had to be eaten standing up or at the desk since there was no table, but came to crave the routine.

"You almost couldn't wait for that time because, one, you knew the time was passing and two because it got you out of bed to open the door," she said. 

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The food was dropped outside the room by a crew member in a hazmat suit, she said. Royal Caribbean wouldn't tell them (or USA TODAY) how many other passengers were in the "red zone" after a positive COVID test on the Dec. 4 sailing but Loiler said she knows they had neighbors because passengers would sometimes mistake a knock on the door for their room service delivery when it turned out to be someone else's and were quickly told to close their doors.

For entertainment, the Loilers watched "Fast and Furious," "Jungle Cruise," "Space Jam" and Fox News.

They kept the curtains closed because the seas were rough and they could see the water sloshing out of it.

"The waves were right there so looking at that was nauseating," Loiler said. 

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'Call me Brittany Kardashian'

The Loilers time in "the dungeon," as she calls it, ended just after 10 a.m. on Sunday.

They were again escorted off the ship, with no other passenger in sight. Disembarkation had begun a few hours earlier.

"They got every single person off the boat before we got off," she said.

They walked off the gangway into a waiting limo bus. They were driven to an airport and boarded a private jet where they were the only passengers.

When it landed in Hartford, Connecticut, another car was waiting to take them to their house.

"Call me Brittany Kardashian," Loiler joked.

Brittany Loiler on a private plane home from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Hartford Connecticut. Royal Caribbean flew she and her husband home after they tested positive for COVID-19 during an 8-night Caribbean cruise

She's grateful Royal Caribbean offers the free service, even if the cruise line wasn't able to find a plane in Curacao.

"I would have flipped out if they said you need to go to a hotel for 10 days in Florida and stay. All I wanted to do was go home."

Royal Caribbean also refunded a portion of their prepaid beverage and specialty dining package and gratuities for the days they were in isolation and promised a credit for a future cruise based on their three days in quarantine. (I also received a letter promising an unspecified credit for the "day" we spent in isolation.)

Loiler said a full cruise refund would be ideal, especially given their loyalty and spending with the cruise line, but said she thinks the cruise line "did the best that they could."

The ordeal has not soured them on cruising – they hope to join their friends on a May cruise and have an Alaskan cruise booked for August. But they wish Royal Caribbean would tighten its travel requirements and only allow vaccinated children. The cruise line allows unvaccinated children younger than 12 to board the ship subject to COVID testing requirements. (Disney will require vaccine proof for children as young as five beginning Jan. 13.)

"I know we'll laugh about it so much some day," she said. "But it was not fun."