Cruise Ship Tests Coronavirus Containment as 300 Passengers Return to U.S.

By and Stephen Lam | February 17, 2020

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif./GENEVA, Feb 17 —More than 300 American cruise liner passengers, including 14 who tested positive for coronavirus, were flown home to military bases in the United States after two weeks under quarantine off Japan.

The cruise ship Diamond Princess, which with more than 400 cases has by far the largest cluster outside China, has become the biggest test so far of other countries’ ability to contain an outbreak that has killed 1,772 people in China and five elsewhere.

A ground crew in anti-contamination suits met the chartered jet that touched down at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, and passengers could be seen climbing down the stairs wearing face masks in the pre-dawn mist. Another flight landed at Travis Air Force Base in California hours earlier.

All the passengers were taken into a two-week quarantine.

Life, Fear, Boredom on Quarantined Ship

The quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship is docked at a port, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, in Yokohama, near Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

By FOSTER KLUG
Associated Press

Fear. Surprising moments of levity. Soul-crushing boredom.

Life on the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship quarantined in a Japanese port with scores of cases of a new virus, means experiencing all these things, according to interviews by The Associated Press with passengers and a growing stream of tweets and YouTube videos.

At times there’s been an almost festive atmosphere, as when locals on Jet Skis buzzed the ship, shouting greetings. Other times, there is deep worry as new cases are confirmed, pushing the total to 218 _ the largest cluster of infections outside China. Five of those patients have severe symptoms and are in intensive care or on artificial respirators, Japan’s health ministry said.

Others have reported surprisingly mild symptoms, including one Australian woman who described the initial terror of being whisked to a hospital while covered in protective plastic.

The days pass with petty frustrations and inconveniences — cramped rooms, dirty sheets, boring food — and difficult work for the hundreds of crew members.

With the number of illnesses increasing, there’s also a nagging doubt about whether this kind of quarantine works. Some experts question if keeping some 3,500 passengers and crew in such close quarters might spread the viral disease, recently named COVID-19.

With another week or more of quarantine to come, the AP looks inside the vacation cruise that’s gone seriously off course:

THE GOOD

Even during the quarantine, it can seem like Cheryl and Paul Molesky are still on vacation. The couple from Syracuse, New York, can be seen in their YouTube videos lounging, often in plush bathrobes, on their balcony, enjoying the sweeping views of a glittering, sun-streaked ocean and, on occasion, snow-capped Mount Fuji.

“We try to have an upbeat presentation and make sure that our attitude comes across that, we’re not hurt, we’re not in pain, … we’re actually just enjoying ourselves,” Paul Molesky, a 78-year-old potter, said in an interview. “It’s been very nice.”

There was the time a man came to the docks in a Spider-Man costume and played music for an hour and a half to the delight of the passengers. And the time, early in the quarantine, when eight people on Jet Skis cruised up, yelling out “Welcome!” and playing music. The passengers clapped and waved from their balconies.

The ship, which has 17 decks, has upped its internet service, and Cheryl Molesky spends several hours each day answering emails and texts and editing their YouTube videos. “Now that we’re here in quarantine we’re getting so much attention. We never get that much attention at home,” the 59-year-old retired art and media teacher said.

THE BORED

Elsewhere on the ship, a Japanese man in his 30s who refused to give his name because of privacy concerns said he spends his days taking photos of each meal and posting them anonymously on Twitter. “All I can do is to wait and tweet,” he said.

The ship has a sushi restaurant, Japanese style bath and theater, but passengers are now mostly confined to their rooms. Many cabins — spread across decks with names such as Aloha, Dolphin and Emerald — are as small as, if not smaller, than many hotel rooms.

More affordable rooms are not much wider than a double bed and don’t have much seating space aside from a desk chair, according to pictures posted on the ship’s website. The cheapest ones don’t even have windows. Many balcony rooms are around 222 square feet or less, the website said. A lot of the interior rooms, which feature large mirrors in place of a window, are only 158 to 162 square feet.

Guests must often change their own sheets, clean their bathrooms and do their own laundry because contact with the crew has been limited.

The days often revolve around food service. Knocking on four doors at once, an elaborate delivery choreography takes place: one masked and gloved crew member hands out the plates, another the silverware, while another checks off names and room numbers.

The boat has added more movies and TV channels to try to help with the boredom. People without balconies are allowed to walk on the deck for about an hour each day, as long as they keep 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Passengers chat and wave to each other from their balconies.

Passenger Matthew Smith has been compiling regular food reviews on Twitter. In one, he noted that he feels, while sitting in his room between meals, just like his cat “waiting for her daily serving of canned food. Is it time? Is it time?”

For the Japanese man on the ship, the food is one of the biggest reasons he wants to leave. “I miss Japanese food.”

THE SCARED

In a recent video posted on Twitter, a group of men wearing Diamond Princess jackets, masks and what appear to be the uniforms of kitchen workers stood before a camera. “We are scared. We appeal to the Indian government and the United Nations to help us, segregate us urgently,” a man identified as crew member Binay Kumar Sarkar said after removing his mask. “We should be rescued immediately and reunited with our families before it is too late.”

Some crew members who’ve tested positive for the virus are restaurant, bar or housekeeping staff who most likely had contact with passengers until Feb. 5 when the first test results were released and restaurants and bars were closed. “Until the quarantine started, everything was business as usual, and everyone was freely moving around on board, so there are various possibilities of infection during that time,” said Kazuho Taguchi, director of global health cooperation at the health ministry.

Crew members still share rooms, as the number of cabins for them is limited, Taguchi said.

One crew member, though, said he had been isolated in his own 6-by-10-foot (1.8-by-3-meter) cabin on the third deck near sea level for two days after he reported a sore throat. “Everyone on the ship is scared. Many people are falling sick, and now the crew’s getting sick too,” he said, declining to give his name because workers have been told not to post anything about the situation on the ship to social media.

Japan’s health minister, Katsunobu Kato, said the government would begin allowing passengers 80 or older who test negative for the virus to leave the ship and serve out the remainder of their quarantine onshore. Those with chronic health problems or assigned cabins without windows would be given priority, he said.

Authorities in Japan say isolating people on board is the way to prevent the disease’s spread; other experts say the measure could create more infection.

“More and more people are getting infected by people still in the incubation period or without symptoms while they are trapped on the ship, which is not good for disease prevention,” Reiji Goto, a physician at the department of infectious diseases at Daiyukai General Hospital in Ichinomiya, told TBS television on Tuesday.

A hospital — not a ship — is the best place to keep people quarantined, according to Tara Smith, a professor who researches infectious diseases at Kent State University’s College of Public Health. The Diamond Princess may have already had environmental contamination when the quarantine began, which puts passengers and crew at risk of further transmission. “I think this was done without a lot of thought to consequences of ongoing transmission within the ship and the mental health of the passengers,” Smith said.

For some, the fear might be worse than the virus. On Thursday, an Australian mother and daughter wearing face masks described being taken off the ship and to a hospital after the daughter tested positive for the virus. “They put me in, like, a wheelchair, sort of, and put like a plastic — almost like a bubble around it — and they were just wheeling me everywhere,” Bianca D’Silva, a 20-year-old law student, told Australia’s Nine Network television.

Bianca and her mother, Suzanne, said they were both briefly ill, but feel fine now. “Honestly, it just felt like your everyday cold. Like, I feel absolutely fine now, physically,” Bianca said. “I had a bit of headache before and just a slight fever but that’s about it, honestly.”

Associated Press journalists Emily Wang and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Rod McGuirk in Australia and Vineeta Deepak and Emily Schmall in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Although U.S. officials had said passengers with coronavirus symptoms would not be repatriated, 14 passengers found at the last minute to have tested positive were permitted to board the planes. The U.S. State Department said the infected passengers were exposed to other passengers for about 40 minutes before they were isolated.

Across mainland China, the total number of coronavirus cases rose by 2,051 to 70,635, according to the World Health Organization. That was slightly more new cases than were reported on Sunday, but hundreds fewer than reported on Saturday.

Chinese authorities say the decrease is a sign that measures taken to halt the spread of the disease are having an effect.

However, epidemiologists say it is probably still too early to say how well the outbreak is being contained within China and its central Hubei province, where the virus first appeared. Official figures of new cases have leveled off in the past, only to jump suddenly after changes in methodology.

“The real issue is whether we are seeing efficient community transmission outside of China and at the present time we are not observing that,” Mike Ryan, head of World Health Organization’s emergencies program, said at a news conference in Geneva.

Fewer than 700 cases have been reported in other countries and even within China the epidemic is affecting “a very tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of people,” Ryan said.

China has responded to the COVID-19 virus by locking down Hubei’s provincial capital Wuhan, a megacity of 11 million people, and imposing restrictions in a number of other cities.

But the ruling Communist Party is under pressure to prevent the economy from crashing and to get people back to work.

China’s central bank cut the interest rate on its medium-term lending on Monday, which is expected to pave the way for a reduction in the benchmark loan prime rate on Thursday. Beijing has also announced plans for cuts in taxes and fees.

Even so, economists expect China’s economic growth to slow. Ratings agency Moody’s on Monday lowered its 2020 GDP growth forecast to 5.2%, making it likely China would miss a goal to double GDP over the decade to 2020.

CRUISE SHIPS

Around half of all known cases of the virus outside China have been found aboard the Diamond Princess, which was ordered to stay under quarantine at the port of Yokohama on Feb. 3.

Several other countries have announced plans to follow the United States in bringing passengers home. Around half of the 3,700 passengers and crew are Japanese.

Matthew Smith, an American passenger who remained on the ship after refusing to board the voluntary repatriation flights, tweeted that staying behind was the “best decision ever.”

“US Gov’t said they would not put anyone on the planes who was symptomatic, and they ended up knowingly and intentionally putting on 14 people who actually have the virus,” he wrote.

Authorities around the world were also trying to track down passengers from another cruise liner, the Westerdam, which was turned away from ports across Southeast Asia for two weeks before docking in Cambodia on Thursday.

One American passenger who disembarked in Cambodia tested positive for the virus in Malaysia on Saturday.

Carnival Corp., which operates both cruise liners, said it was cooperating with authorities in trying to trace other passengers from the Westerdam. None of the other 1,454 passengers and 802 crew had reported any symptoms, it said.

Hundreds of passengers are still in Cambodia, either on the ship or in hotels.

Holly Rauen, a passenger from Fort Myers, Florida, said she and others will be tested by Cambodian authorities. “We have no idea when we get to get home,” she said.

CHINA BACK TO WORK?

After an extended Lunar New Year holiday, China needs to get back to work or will suffer severe economic consequences. There is a proposal to delay the opening of the annual session of parliament, due on Feb. 24.

Some cities remain in lockdown, streets are deserted, employees are nervous, and travel bans and quarantine orders are in place around the country. Many factories have yet to re-open, disrupting supply chains in China and beyond.

In Japan, where data showed on Monday that the economy had already shrunk last quarter at the fastest pace in almost six years, the impact of the virus is expected to show up in the current quarter, stoking fears of recession.

Trade-dependent Singapore downgraded its 2020 economic growth forecast and has said recession is possible. It is set to unveil measures to cushion the blow on Tuesday.

Organizers of the Tokyo Marathon have decided to limit the March 1 race to top-level athletes, banning 38,000 general participants, a person with knowledge of the issue told Reuters.

Japan’s Imperial Household Agency said it would cancel Emperor Naruhito’s public birthday address on Feb. 23, his first since his coronation last year. The event regularly attracts tens of thousands of people to the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose in Washington, David Stanway in Shanghai, Claire Baldwin in Sihanoukville, Daniel Trotta in New York, John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore, Farah Master in Hong Kong and Sophie Yu in Beijing; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Peter Graff; Editing by Mike Collett-White, Nick Macfie and Sonya Hepinstall)

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