For his 50th birthday, Seminole County Tax Collector J.R. Kroll received a six-day vacation to Iceland as a gift from his wife, Holly.
“I thought: ‘Wow, this sounds like a great trip,'” Kroll said.
But the venture was far from pleasant thanks to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Kroll found himself alone for nearly 11 days quarantined inside a “cruddy” government-run hotel room and being served three cold meals a day.
“You were not allowed to open the door. And if I left, I would be arrested,” Kroll said Friday, a day after he arrived home from the north European country.
He spent most of his days pacing the 3.7-metre-by-4.6-metre hotel room, doing pushups, taking naps, browsing the Internet on his mobile phone or staring out the second-story window at the landscape of small, squat houses. The television broadcast mostly shows in Icelandic, with “only one or two channels from Great Britain,” he recalled.
“The guy in the room next to me, it sounded like he couldn’t take it anymore, because one day you could hear him start smashing things,” Kroll said.
It all started September 5, the day after the couple arrived in the capital city of Reykjavik when Kroll developed a mild fever, a runny nose and fatigue.
Iceland mandates that all vaccinated visitors must show a negative COVID-19 test that is no more than 72 hours old before leaving the United States. The Krolls met the requirement and have been fully vaccinated since April.
Still, Kroll decided to get a COVID-19 test. He logged into a government-run website and was immediately texted a bar code and told to report to a testing facility. There he was given a nose swab test. Hours later, he received a phone call at his hotel room that he tested positive and that he needed to stay put.
“I thought; ‘Oh, no!'” he said.
A small van with the driver fully covered in medical scrubs picked him up at his hotel and transported him to the government quarantine site. Meanwhile, his wife — who tested negative — quickly bought a plane ticket to return to the US the next day. She feared that if she tested positive then she also would be quarantined.
“Every breakfast, it was the same thing: a honeydew melon, a hard-boiled egg, bread with jelly and butter, a Danish,” said Kroll, recalling the hotel service. “Everything was cold. I would have killed for a microwave. … I was definitely starting to get agitated after seven days.”
After finally being allowed to leave the hotel room last Wednesday, he ordered a large breakfast of pancakes, bacon and coffee at a nearby restaurant.
“That was phenomenal,” he said. Kroll then took a bus to the airport.
But even though Kroll was disappointed he had to spend his holiday in a tiny hotel room, he doesn’t blame Iceland for the strict quarantine system.
“Their system is working,” he said. “It is keeping their COVID (hospitalisation and death) levels ridiculously low. … But we couldn’t do it here in the U.S. … Here in the US, people wouldn’t accept that. But they’re doing what they have to do to keep their numbers low.”
With a national health care system and about 372,000 residents, Iceland is ranked as one of the world’s most vaccinated countries with more than 72 per cent of its population fully inoculated, according to the World Health Organisation.
But the number of positive cases began to climb this summer as Icelanders began visiting nightclubs and many started travelling abroad again. On August 9, the US State Department issued a travel advisory recommending that Americans not travel to Iceland because of a very high level of COVID-19. World health experts, however, say most Icelanders that are testing positive have mild symptoms because they are vaccinated.
As of Friday, the country has had 11,404 total infections and 33 deaths, including three over the past month, according to the Centre for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Kroll never experienced anything more severe than allergy symptoms, he said.
But it’s now unlikely the Sanford couple — who have long enjoyed taking trips to the far corners of the world — will travel abroad any time soon, fearing he may be quarantined again.
“As long as COVID is around, there is nowhere I would go,” Kroll said. “It was quite an experience.”
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Martin E. Comas