Diamond Princess passenger Carl Goldman opens up about being at the center of the global coronavirus health crisis

After Carl Goldman’s fever broke, he spent hours isolated, pacing back and forth in his sealed-off room of Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit, where he’s been quarantined since testing positive for the new coronavirus.

“Every seven steps I’d hit a wall, then I’d turn around and go back,” says Goldman in this week’s PEOPLE. “Yesterday I got 9,000 steps in.”

And every four hours, nurses clad in hazmat suits and connected to air-purifying respirators entered his room — last used in 2014 by an Ebola patient — to check his vital signs.

They rubbed swabs over anything Goldman may have touched, trying to determine if the highly infectious COVID-19 virus he tested positive for on Feb. 16 could still be detected.

Carl Godman
Credit: Courtesy Carl Goldman

“It feels like I’ve been living in a science fiction movie,” says Goldman, whose life became a nightmare after a passenger on the cruise ship Diamond Princess — on which he and his wife Jeri had been traveling through Southeast Asia — tested positive for the disease on Feb. 1.

“It’s been a life-changing experience. I don’t think I’ll ever take anything for granted ever again.”

Carl Godman
Goldman being rushed to the Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit on Feb. 16.
| Credit: Courtesy Carl Goldman

Goldman quickly found himself at the center of a global health crisis as the COVID-19 virus began spreading from one nation to the next, infecting more than 96,000 people. So far it has claimed more than 3,300 lives, including 11 deaths in the United States.

And in recent days world health officials have begun sounding an ominous alarm, saying it’s just a matter of time before those statistics skyrocket.

“We are asking the American public to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a Feb. 25 press conference. “The disruption to everyday life may be severe.”

For more on Goldman’s time in quarantine and how to prevent COVID-19, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Goldman’s experience began on Feb. 4 when Japanese health officials in the port city of Yokohama boarded the Diamond Princess, announcing that they were testing all 3,711 passengers and crew for the virus, which causes intense fevers.

Goldman and his wife, who own a radio station in Santa Clara, Calif, spent the next 12 days quarantined in their tiny suite on the ship, docked in Yokohama harbor, as passengers began testing positive.

“We’d hear the sirens from the ambulances throughout the day and night, taking people to the hospital,” says Goldman.

By Feb. 16, at least 40 American passengers had come down with COVID-19, but State Department officials allowed 300 others — who had been deemed free of the virus — to return to the U.S. on an Air Force cargo plane.

Carl Godman
Goldman and his wife were quarantined in their room on the Diamond Princess for 12 days.
| Credit: Courtesy Carl Goldman

Two hours into their flight bound for Travis Air Force Base outside of Sacramento, Goldman woke up after a short nap and realized something was wrong.

“I was burning up with a really high fever,” says Goldman, who was flown to Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit; Jeri, who never contracted COVID-19, was put into mandatory quarantine several blocks away for 14 days and released on March 2.

“No one realized our ship was a floating petri dish,” says Goldman, who won’t be allowed to leave the facility until nose and throat swabs no longer reveal the presence of the virus for three consecutive days.

“I’m lucky. It came and went very quickly for me. I only had a fever for about 12 hours. But it’s going to take weeks for everything we’ve been through to sink in.”