Cruise ship with thousands aboard in limbo off the California coast as it awaits coronavirus results


In this Feb. 11, 2020 photo, the Grand Princess cruise ship passes the Golden Gate Bridge as it arrives from Hawaii in San Francisco. California’s first coronavirus fatality is an elderly patient who apparently contracted the illness on a cruise, authorities said Wednesday, March 4, and a medical screener at Los Angeles International Airport is one of six new confirmed cases. The cruise ship is at sea but is expected to skip its next port and return to San Francisco by Thursday, according to a statement from Dr. Grant Tarling, the chief medical officer for the Carnival Corp., which operates the Grand Princess. Any current passengers who were also on the February trip will be screened. (Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

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A cruise ship in limbo off the California coast with thousands aboard should learn more about its fate Friday, when officials get results from dozens of coronavirus tests.

The California Air National Guard dropped off test kits by helicopter to the Grand Princess on Thursdayafter officials learned that a California man who’d traveled on that ship last month contracted coronavirus and died this week.

Medical officials collected samples for testing from 45 people currently aboard the ship after some showed symptoms. The samples were flown to a lab near San Francisco, the cruise line said.

The ship must remain at sea as it awaits test results, expected Friday, said Mary Ellen Carroll of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

There are more than 3,500 people aboard the Grand Princess — 2,422 guests and 1,111 crew members, Princess Cruises said. They represent 54 nationalities.

While they wait for news, all guests have been asked to remain in their rooms, and they’re getting meal deliveries by room service, the cruise company said.

A two-week trip is cut short

The Grand Princess was on a two-week trip from San Francisco to Hawaii and was scheduled to return Saturday.

The ship was diverted toward San Francisco on Wednesday — with a planned stop in Mexico canceled — after the California man’s death in Placer County. His was the first coronavirus fatality outside Washington state in an outbreak that’s killed 14 people nationwide.

The man, who hasn’t been named publicly, was 71 and had underlying health conditions, Placer County health officials said. He was likely exposed to the virus on a Grand Princess cruise between February 11 and 21 from San Francisco to Mexico.

Shortly after the Grand Princess finished its Mexico trip last month, it started the latest cruise, with some people from the February cruise remaining on the ship for the current cruise.

Some of those identified for testing included several who were on the Mexico voyage with the victim. At least three passengers who disembarked from that February trip tested positive, including the man who died.

It’s not clear when or where the ship will eventually dock, though San Francisco is a possibility, Carroll said.

No guests will be allowed to disembark until all test results are received, Princess Cruises said in a statement.

The captain advised passengers Thursday night that more people than the initial 45 may be tested on Friday, according to a video clip CNN obtained from inside the ship from passenger Teresa Duncan Johnson.

Though all guests have been asked to stay in their rooms, “we’re in discussions with the CDC regarding time for guests to access the open deck for fresh air and exercise,” the captain says, referring to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A race to trace possible infections

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency, saying local health officials are working with their federal counterparts to trace people who had contact with the man who died.

Princess Cruises has shared relevant data with the CDC to help notify state and county health officials, who will follow up with anyone who may have been exposed to coronavirus, cruise line officials said.

“Cruise ships are posing probably one of the biggest challenges that we are seeing in this outbreak,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, infectious diseases director at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“We know these cruise ships are essentially … we’ve been calling them incubators, they are incredibly very healthy environments for the pathogens that we’re talking about.”

Another cruise ship was linked to the virus

It’s not clear what will happen to the Grand Princess passengers after test results come back.

But another Princess Cruises ship, the Diamond Princess, was the site of a major coronavirus outbreak as it was docked at Yokohama, Japan, last month.

After the first handful of cases were reported from the Diamond Princess, Japanese officials decided to keep people aboard and quarantine the ship. Eventually, more than 700 people aboard became infected with coronavirus.

“The problem with the Diamond (Princess) cruise ship, as we’ve learned, was that when you quarantine people like that, with a few possible infected people, the likelihood of infecting many more people goes up,” CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said.

A top Japanese government adviser has said the quarantine of the Diamond Princess “may not have been perfect.”

Infected crew members may have passed on infections to other crew members or guests, said Dr. Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center at Japan’s National Center for Global Health and Medicine.

It’s impossible to fully isolate staff members during a cruise ship quarantine, other said.

“Unfortunately, to maintain daily life of the more than 3,700 passenger cruise, we needed help, we needed support from cruise members to maintain the daily life,” said Yosuke Kita of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

US infection cases are going up

Health officials are urging local communities to consider ways to stop the coronavirus from spreading as the number of infections soared to at least 250 nationwide.

That number includes at least 46 former passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

In addition to the former Grand Princess passenger in California, 13 people have died in Washington state — including many who are linked to a long-term nursing home near Seattle.

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