It’s been an emotional ride for guests on board Holland America’s MS Westerdam. So much so, that Wednesday’s news that the ship was accepted by Cambodia, was met with a mixture of relief and skepticism. But now, the ship’s aimless journey is coming to a close: The ship has docked in Cambodia and passengers are waiting to disembark.
Early Thursday morning, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, confirmed via tweet that the Westerdam had docked with authorization from the kingdom. A team from the embassy was dispatched to the port to assist the U.S. citizens on board.
However, before the passengers can disembark, there’s red tape to clear, and as the inspection process continues, some passengers still have concerns as the ship has been turned away from multiple other disembarkation points, despite the cruise line’s assertion that there are no known coronavirus cases among the ship’s 1,455 passengers and 802 crew.
Lorraine Oliveira, a passenger traveling from the U.K. on Westerdam with her family, told USA TODAY in a message on Thursday that they are “mainly relieved as something positive is happening now but still apprehensive for fear something may go wrong at the last minute.”
Oliveira has seen inspectors on board carrying out health checks. She explained that while she’s not certain of the exact process, passengers are receiving letters to their staterooms with instructions. They haven’t received a letter yet so are sitting tight. Passengers still have full access to the ship apart from duty-free shops.
“Inspection and clearance procedures are proceeding,” Holland America public relations director Erik Elvejord told USA TODAY. “Given the number of organizations involved in supporting today’s complex operations, it is taking time.”
Elvejord noted that due to the delays, the first round of charter flights to Phnom Penh would not happen Thursday but that aircraft had been secured for Friday.
“We are grateful to everyone here in Cambodia who are helping and welcoming us today,” he concluded.
The ship will remain in port at Sihanoukville for several days post-disembarkation. After transferring to Phnom Penh via charter flights, passengers will catch flights home, which have been arranged and paid for by Holland America. All passengers will also receive a full refund and a future cruise credit.
The Westerdam departed Hong Kong Feb. 1 and originally was scheduled to disembark in Shanghai on Saturday before coronavirus gripped mainland China and forced itinerary changes. It was turned away from multiple other disembarkation points.
First, it moved to Yokohama, Japan, only for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to bar the vessel from entering his country. Next, Guam, a U.S. territory, turned it away, rejecting a request from the State Department to let the ship in.
And on Tuesday – one day after Holland America announced it had gotten permission for the ship to disembark at Bangkok’s Laem Chabang port – Thailand’s public health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said he issued orders denying the ship permission to disembark there.
The Philippines also barred the ship from making a scheduled port call earlier in the sailing.
Relief, frustration, skepticism and medical needs: Life on Holland America cruise ship stuck in limbo
Coronavirus cases on Diamond Princess up to 218
Thursday brought mixed news for the passengers on the Diamond Princess, which has been quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, since Feb. 4. (It originally set sail on Jan. 20 with 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew.)
The bad news: Princess announced that an additional 44 cases had been diagnosed, bringing the total to at least 218. The sick have all been removed from the ship and taken to facilities onshore. Because at least 20 of those are Americans, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in Tokyo to assist Japanese health officials.
The good news: Princess Cruises announced early Thursday that Japanese health officials would facilitate the voluntary disembarkation of some guests, allowing them to complete the final three days of their 14-day quarantine at an onshore location.
The disembarkation will take place in phases. The most medically vulnerable passengers will be included in the first phase, including the elderly and those guests with pre-existing health conditions.
Diamond Princess: Japanese officials, cruise ship to let some passengers off early
“According to officials, guests in the first group will be tested for the 2019 novel coronavirus,” Princess Cruises said in a statement provided by Negin Kamali, director of public relations. “If the test is positive, they will be transported to a local hospital for further evaluation and isolation. If the test is negative, they will be given the option to leave the ship and be transported to a quarantine housing facility.”
Those that choose to leave the ship for the remainder of the quarantine, scheduled to end on Feb. 19, will stay in a Japanese facility with individual rooms and bathrooms. The facility does not include a clinic but prescription medicine will be provided.
Their meals, served in Japanese-style bento boxes, will accommodate certain medical conditions but not preferences.
Princess Cruises said that all remaining guests are welcome to stay on board through the end of the quarantine if they desire.
To date, passengers who remain 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 three feet from fellow passengers, Matt Smith, an attorney from Sacramento, California, and a passenger on the quarantined ship, told USA TODAY on Friday.
Number of cases spikes 33% overnight
The number of coronavirus cases spiked 33% overnight Wednesday, leaping from 45,210 from 60,349 as of 9 a.m. EST on Thursday.
The spikes overseas are at least partly due to new counting standards implemented by China, which reported Wednesday that it is tallying infections differently. The nation previously only counted a coronavirus case as confirmed when a person tested positive for the virus, but that thinking has been revised, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday night.
Your guide to coronavirus: Everything you need to know about Covid-19
The new numbers of deaths push the coronavirus well past that of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, officials said. But the mortality rate – a statistic that measures the deadliness of the virus on infected persons – of SARS is still significantly higher than coronavirus. The latest figures show that coronavirus has a mortality rate of 2.3%, compared to nearly 9.6% for SARS.
As was the case with SARS, the vast majority of coronavirus cases (59,822) and deaths (1,367) are in mainland China.
The government is no longer requiring a positive test, the news agency said, a decision made partly because testing kits are in short supply. New cases are now being confirmed if a person is simply diagnosed by a doctor or other health professional; China says the new standard will help treat people more quickly once they exhibit symptoms of the virus, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
Contributing: John Bacon, Doug Stanglin, Mike James, USA TODAY