Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been quarantined off the coast of Japan for a week because of the coronavirus will let some of its passengers off the ship early.
The cruise line also confirmed late Wednesday night 44 new cases, bringing the total number of people on the ship who have fallen ill with the virus to at least 218, with at least 20 of those being Americans.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Japanese authorities initially decided quarantining people on the cruise ship was the best option. She said during an event Tuesday at the National Press Club that the increasing number of infected individuals on the ship is prompting officials to “look critically” about the safest thing to do for all on board.
“I think the issue is what are the options available? Finding the best option, given what we know right now about how much spread has already occurred and how many are still susceptible,” she said. “It’s just an extremely difficult issue. For the passengers, the crew and their families, it is extremely difficult.”
Schuchat noted the ship has a lot of elderly people on board. “What’s the best way to safely offload them, if they are going to be offloaded?”
While all Diamond Princess guests are still allowed to remain onboard through the end of the Feb. 19 quarantine period, Japanese health officials plan to start a voluntary process to let passengers off the ship. Older adults with pre-existing health conditions and more of the “most medically vulnerable guests” will be let off first, according to an update from the cruise line.
Guests will be tested for coronavirus prior to disembarking: Those who test positive will be transported to a local hospital, while those who test negative will be allowed to leave and head to a quarantine housing facility.
The Princess Cruises ship was carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew when it set sail and has been quarantined after an initial 10 cases of coronavirus were reported Feb. 4.
Due to the quarantine, “it was not unexpected that additional cases would be reported involving individuals who were exposed prior to the start of the quarantine,” Princess Cruises said in a statement provided by Negin Kamali, director of public relations.
Kamali also previously said that the cruise line would follow “guidance from the Japan Ministry of Health on plans for disembarkation protocols to provide medical care for these new cases.”
The cruise ship is one of several affected by the deadly coronavirus outbreak, which has prompted cruise lines to issue quarantines and perform screenings on board. Meanwhile, some ports have denied at least one cruise ship entry over fears of the virus.
The coronavirus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, has spread across the globe with more than 60,348 confirmed cases and 1,369 deaths as of Thursdaymorning, and the coronavirus death toll has now surpassed the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2003. The majority of the cases are in mainland China. Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
‘It’s almost like we’re on the ship alone’
Passengers on the ship have been instructed to stay in their suites or cabins during the quarantine.
Those in interior cabins with no window or outdoor access have been able to go on deck for up to an hour and a half but must stay at least 3 feet from fellow passengers, Matt Smith, an attorney from Sacramento, California, told USA TODAY on Friday.
Smith says the situation is “inconvenient,” but that he and his travel companion, Katherine Codekas, are comfortable, with fresh water and electricity, and meals dropped off at the door by the ship’s crew.
Internet service has sometimes been spotty, but he said the cruise line has provided more on-demand movies and added live TV channels to help passengers while in quarantine. They requested and received clean sheets but changed the bed themselves after crew members dropped them at the door to avoid close contact.
Status updates from the ship’s captain have increased and improved as the quarantine has gone on, Smith said.
On Monday, Smith told USA TODAY that they are still doing fine, though they had a moment of worry hearing about more confirmed cases. As for how the atmosphere is on the ship, he said it’s hard to tell, isolated in their cabin.
“It’s almost like we’re on the ship alone except for the crew who bring us food and things and occasional voices from nearby balconies,” he said.
On Tuesday, Rai Caluori, Princess Cruises’ executive vice president of fleet operations, announced in a Facebook video that “more than 2,000 prescription medications have been brought on board” for passengers.
“One of our highest priorities has been to provide guests and crew with their prescription medications,” Caluori added. “Seven new pharmacists have been assisting in the assorting, delivery and distribution to guests.”
All guests will receive a full refund for the cruise, including airfare, hotel, ground transportation, pre-paid shore excursions, gratuities and other items. No guests will be charged for onboard incidentals during the added time on board, Princess Cruises said in a statement Sunday afternoon.
Laundry service is also available, Caluori said.
And Princess Cruises will provide guests with a future cruise credit equal to the cost of the cruise, which had been scheduled to end on Feb. 4 before it was placed under an additional two-week quarantine.
Though all gratuities will also be refunded to guests, Princess Cruises said that the company will make sure crew members receive their designated gratuities for their work, plus paid time off following the quarantine.
Thailand reportedly turns away Holland America ship
Thailand has reportedly turned away Holland America’s MS Westerdam, which had been previously scheduled for disembarkation in Laem Chabang on Thursday, according to the cruise line.
On Tuesday morning, Thailand’s public health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, announced on Facebook he had prohibited the ship’s entry, according to Reuters and The Bangkok Post.
“I have issued orders. Permission to disembark refused,” he wrote. Thailand currently has 33 confirmed cases of the virus as of Thursday morning.
“We are aware of the reports regarding the status of Westerdam’s call to Laem Chabang (Bangkok), Thailand,” the cruise line said in a statement provided to USA TODAY by Holland America’s director of relations, Erik Elvejord. “We are actively working this matter and will provide an update when we are able. We know this is confusing for our guests and their families and we greatly appreciate their patience.”
Passengers who had already begun booking return flights from Bangkok based on the announcement that they’d be getting off the ship in Thailand now find themselves back in limbo.
“It looks like we are not going to get off the boat in Thailand,” Steve Muth, a Westerdam passenger from Onsted, Michigan, wrote in an email to The Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. “The saga continues.”
Other passengers have taken to social media to vent, which they report has become increasingly difficult because the ship-provided connectivity has slowed.
One guest said on Twitter that the announcement that the ship had been denied port in Thailand was first met with laughter, then fear. Another tweeted that the captain had reported that the ship only has enough fuel and supplies for 3½ days beyond the planned disembarkation on Saturday.
The ship had already changed its disembarkation point from Shanghai to Yokohama before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied the MS Westerdam entry last week. It was subsequently turned away from Guam, a U.S. territory. The Philippines also barred the ship from making a scheduled port call earlier in the sailing.
There are no known cases of coronavirus among the 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board despite reports to the contrary, the cruise line said, and the MS Westerdam has not been in quarantine.
“We have no reason to believe there are cases of coronavirus on board,” Erik Elvejord, Holland America’s public relations director, said in an email Friday morning.
The next scheduled cruise on Feb. 15 has been canceled. The cruise line is assessing the impact of port restrictions in Asia on cruises departing Feb. 29 or later. The current passengers have been promised a full refund and a credit toward a future cruise.
Other cruises affected by coronavirus
Passengers aboard Dream Cruises’ World Dream disembarked Sunday at Hong Kong’s Kai Tek Cruise Terminal after tests revealed no one on board had coronavirus.
Three people who were on the ship from Jan. 19 to Jan. 24 tested positive for coronavirus, and the ship was under quarantine near Hong Kong while it waited for test results for passengers and crew to come back. World Dream operations will be suspended until further notice, according to the cruise line.
Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas was expected to depart Bayonne, New Jersey, Monday afternoon after passengers tested negative for coronavirus. Passengers were tested after the ship docked and screened 27 passengers who had recently traveled from mainland China. The itinerary has been changed from a Bahamas cruise to Bermuda, in light of the delayed departure.
The Costa Smeralda, one of Costa Cruises’ ships, had a coronavirus scare at the end of January that locked down the ship for almost a day in Civitavecchia, Italy. The scare turned out to be a case of the flu.
Cruise industry bolstering coronavirus screening; some ships ban China, Hong Kong passport holders
Norwegian and Royal Caribbean International cruise lines announced Friday they would bar passengers holding passports from China, Hong Kong or Macau.
Royal Caribbean listed new health screening protocols on its website Friday, noting “these steps are intentionally conservative, and we apologize that they will inconvenience some of our guests.”
The protocols included “all holders of China, Hong Kong and Macau passports, regardless of residency.”
Norwegian Cruise Lines updated its coronavirus procedure Friday, also stating that “any guest that holds a Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passport will be unable to board any of our ships, regardless of residency.” This ban extended to crew members, as well.
Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group representing most of the ocean-going cruise ships around the globe, said Friday its members would restrict boarding access to anyone who may have come in contact with coronavirus.
Member ships will deny boarding to anyone who has been in close contact with or helped to care for someone suspected or diagnosed with coronavirus. Those who are being monitored for potential exposure to the virus are also to be turned away.
Ships are also to deny boarding to all who have traveled from, visited or been through airports in China, the epicenter of the outbreak, within a two-week period prior to embarkation. That includes Hong Kong and Macao in addition to mainland China.
CLIA cruise member ships are to conduct screening before boarding. Enhanced screening and medical support are to be provided by ships as needed to anyone with coronavirus-like symptoms.
Crew members and passengers alike are subject to these precautionary measures.
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Contributing: Ken Alltucker, Bill Keveney, Jayme Deerwester, Grace Hauck, Cydney Henderson, Hannah Yasharoff, USA TODAY, Frank Witsil, The Detroit Free Press