Researchers Who Spent Months on Remote Island Return to See Extent of the Pandemic for First Time
One crew member said that he thought the pandemic would "have already passed by the time we all got home"
A group of scientific researchers has been confronted by the realities of coronavirus (COVID-19) for the first time after returning from a remote island in the Pacific Ocean where they have lived since just before the pandemic swept the globe.
The group, which consisted of Matthew Butschek II, 26, Matthew Saunter, 35, Charlie Thomas, 18, and Naomi Worcester, 43, had extremely limited access to the outside world during their eight-month research trip — no TV, no cell phones, and only one shared email address.
Butschek told CNN that they didn't realize the gravity of COVID-19 while they were away.
"I had definitely heard a few things about it," he said. "But between other diseases like SARS and swine flu, I thought, 'It's just the next thing. Nothing big.' I really thought it'd have already passed by the time we all got home."
The group arrived at Kure Atoll, which is a wildlife sanctuary managed by Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, in February. Hawaii sends two crews per year to the atoll for research on its ecosystem, CNN reported.
Field camp leader Saunter described the island to CNN as "a speck in the middle of the ocean" — a speck more than 1,300 miles from Honolulu, Hawaii.
"We might get messages from the outside world two or three times a day," he added, saying that for many of the atoll's visitors, that limited access is part of its "appeal."
Thomas — who was the only member of the crew from New Zealand, the rest are from the United States — said that news of the virus "really felt so far away."
Nothing could have prepared the group for the world's new normal, now that their research trip has ended. Worcester said that it's a steep learning curve and adjusting to social distancing has been "pretty weird."
"There was having to say goodbye to everyone at the airport. I'm happy about all of the great food — nonperishable food — that we get to eat now. But I haven't had one hug since I've been back," she said.
Butschek agreed, saying that he is grateful none of his loved ones have contracted the virus, adding, "I feel like I'm still learning the details of everything."
Worldwide, more than 64.2 million people have been infected with COVID-19. The United States leads the world with the most cases, with more than 13.9 million, according to data from the New York Times.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.