A top health official at the National Institutes of Health shed light on the decision to evacuate hundreds of American passengers from the coronavirus-infected Diamond Princess Cruises ship — 14 of whom tested positive for the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, explained that the original idea to keep people safely quarantined in an infection-controlled manner on the ship wasn’t unreasonable. But even with the quarantine process on the ship, virus transmission still occurred.
The Japanese health ministry said Monday the number of cases confirmed aboard the Diamond Princess had reached 454.
“As it turned out, that was very ineffective in preventing spread on the ship,” Fauci told the USA TODAY editorial board and reporters Monday. Every hour, there were another four or five people getting infected.
The quarantine on the ship was scheduled to end Feb. 19, and those who came back to the U.S. a couple days ahead of the end of the quarantine will likely have to restart the clock on a new 14-day quarantine period.
The Princess Cruises ship was carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew when it set sail and was quarantined after 10 cases of coronavirus were reported Feb. 4. About 380 Americans were on the cruise ship.
“The quarantine process failed,” Fauci continued. “I mean, I’d like to sugarcoat it and try to be diplomatic about it, but it failed. People were getting infected on that ship. Something went awry in the process of the quarantining on that ship. I don’t know what it was, but a lot of people got infected on that ship.”
Passengers on the ship were instructed to stay in their suites or cabins during the quarantine.
Those in interior cabins with no window or outdoor access were able to go on deck for up to an hour-and-a-half, but had to stay at least a meter from fellow passengers, Matt Smith, a family law attorney from Sacramento, California, told USA TODAY a few days into the quarantine. Meals were dropped off at the door by the ship’s crew.
The crew also distributed masks and thermometers, as passengers were asked to take their temperatures and report readings above 99.5℉ (37.5℃), Smith said. Common coronavirus symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
The U.S. State Department coordinated with the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to bring passengers back to the U.S.
While it was a tough call to make in the first place, it grew tougher once 14 passengers tested positive for the virus.
The passengers were thought to be negative and put into the evacuation process. As they were on the bus getting ready to leave, tests came back positive.
Fauci explained there was a choice: Should these people stay in Japan, or should they be flown home?
Passengers ultimately boarded flights home, with those infected and uninfected flying in separate areas of the plane. The infected were in an area Fauci described as almost like being in a containment laboratory.
To call the situation stressful would be an understatement.
“Many of them were elderly; many of them had underlying conditions,” Fauci added. “They just wanted to get home, and we felt it was safe enough on the plane to get them home without infecting anybody else.”
‘Glad to be going home’:Passengers on coronavirus-quarantined cruise detail US evacuation
Fauci said they are anticipating more positive tests, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if the number of evacuees infected turned out to be higher than 14.
Not all passengers opted to leave the ship. Smith told USA TODAY he was not planning to take the charter flight back to the U.S.
“We think the way they are handling this is not safe,” Smith said Saturday. “They want to take hundreds of people off the ship before the quarantine here has been completed and without them ever being tested, and they want to throw them on buses together, then a plane, then force them to serve another 14-day quarantine under unknown circumstances.”
Contributing: Bill Keveney, Hannah Yasharoff, Morgan Hines, Curtis Tate, Jayme Deerwester, Julia Thompson