‘It’s like the world’s turned upside down,’ Kingsport couple return home from cruise, not tested for COVID-19 upon re-entry to U.S.

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Suzi and Jeff McKee returned to the Tri-Cities on Sunday after two weeks at sea on a cruise.

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – The McKees left Kingsport for the west coast on Feb. 29.

That was a little more than two weeks ago, but Suzi McKee said she felt like she came back to a different world on Sunday.

“It’s like the world’s turned upside down,” she said Monday.

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She and her husband Jeff returned from a 15-day cruise that departed Los Angeles days before the U.S. government warned Americans to stay off of cruise ships amid growing concerns of the spread of a novel coronavirus.

The cruise ship passes through the Panama Canal, where McKee said passengers who wanted to disembark had to have their temperatures checked.

McKee said business proceeded as usual for most of the cruise. After the ship docked in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, she said neither she nor her husband were tested for COVID-19 on their way back home to the Tri-Cities.

She said she didn’t notice anyone showing signs of illness on the cruise, and she and her husband feel healthy.

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Apart from a brief disruption after the 3,000 passengers disembarked the Emerald Princess on Saturday, coming home was smooth sailing for the McKees.

“If they started testing people, it would take you 24 hours to get off an airplane or a cruise ship,” she said. “We felt good because we were healthy, we were screened in Panama, so we felt okay.”

McKee said the pair knew about the spread of COVID-19 as their vacation approached, but the virus had yet to spread to any of their destinations on the cruise by the time they stepped on a plane out of the Tri-Cities.

They kept an eye on the news, she said, and made note as the virus began its spread across the U.S. and the world.

The first sign of trouble reached them in Panama.

Panama was the first sign that things were different for the McKees.

“They wouldn’t let us come in and anchor, they sent about 35 military and medical personnel aboard the ship to inspect things,” she recalled.

Passengers wishing to disembark from the Emerald Princess in Panama had their temperature checked and cleared. The ship continued through the Panama Canal and into the last leg of the cruise, where McKee said they ran into more problems.

“In Colombia, the mayor of Cartegena said he was not allowing us to disembark,” she said. “I knew once we hit the Caribbean side that it would be challenging.”

Suzi with her guide, Orlando, in Panama City.

On Thursday, McKee said the crew members learned their jobs were facing indefinite suspension. Sitting at her home in Kingsport and an ocean apart from the ship, she’s still thinking about the crew members that served them for two weeks.

“It was devastating, we though our room steward and our waiter were going to cry,” she said. “These were young men that . . . they have no work now.”

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Throughout the cruise, she said she kept an eye on home through social media.

“We kept seeing things at home, people were shopping and the shelves were cleared and we were thinking, ‘Why are they doing this?'” she said. “We just couldn’t believe.”

Jeff McKee celebrates his birthday aboard the ship with Phillip, a server aboard the Emerald Princess cruise ship.

Any worries of stocking up when they returned home were quashed by some of McKee’s former students. She retired after teaching for 44 years at Bluff City Junior High and Sullivan North High School, and she said several former students made sure she and her husband had supplies when they returned home.

With the help of her former students, a few Sullivan County commissioners, a congressional candidate and dozens of prayers, McKee said she “in good hands” as they returned home.

“That was very touching, knowing you had a community behind you when you were in the middle of the ocean,” she said.

For more of News Channel 11’s continuing coverage on COVID-19, click HERE.

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