U.S. officials said Friday that 21 people aboard a cruise ship idling off the coast of California had tested positive for the new coronavirus, as public health leaders raced to stop the spread of COVID-19 and bring the thousands of passengers and crew – including more than 230 Canadians – ashore.
The Grand Princess cruise has been sitting roughly 130 kilometres off the coast of San Francisco since Wednesday night, when it cut short a 15-day trip between California and Hawaii after passengers began complaining of flu-like symptoms. Public health officials have identified several people who contracted the disease and had travelled on the ship during a prior cruise to Mexico, including a 71-year-old California man who has since died.
Three of Canada’s 54 COVID-19 cases – an Ontario couple and a woman in Alberta – are connected to the cruise ship. On Friday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam issued a strong new warning advising anyone who has travelled outside of Canada to closely monitor themselves for any symptoms of COVID-19. She also advised Canadians to reconsider boarding cruise ships due to the risks of coronavirus transmission.
“I am asking Canadians to think twice before going on cruise ships,” Dr. Tam said.
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence said Friday that of 46 people aboard the ship who were tested for coronavirus on Thursday, 19 crew members and two passengers had tested positive. The news sent U.S. officials scrambling to find a non-commercial port where they said passengers could disembark over the weekend.
All of the nearly 2,400 passengers would be tested before being allowed to leave and those that were positive would be quarantined, Mr. Pence said. The 1,100 crew members would be required to remain on the ship. Officials did not say where the ship would dock, but said they were looking for U.S. military bases that could conduct testing.
U.S. public health agencies have been seeking to avoid a repeat of the disastrous situation that happened aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship last month, where passengers were forced into quarantine off the coast of Japan for weeks, allowing the virus to infect more than 700 passengers, six of whom died.
The Grand Princess was scheduled to return to San Francisco on Friday, but California public health officials refused to allow the ship to dock in the city’s cruise terminal until they could determine whether any passengers were infected with the coronavirus that has sickened more than 100,000 worldwide.
Passengers have remained confined to their rooms since Thursday afternoon, waiting out the hours watching television, playing trivia games provided by the ship’s staff, and dining on room service. Princess Cruises, which operates the ship, said it was giving passengers free internet and phone use and was distributing forms for passengers to request refills of prescription medication.
Toronto-area travel agents Carol Baldwin and daughter, Rhian Torontow, are aboard the ship for what was intended to be a celebration for completing training with the cruise line. Instead of enjoying the final days of their cruise, the pair were ordered to stay in their cabin in the ship’s interior.
The women were passing the time watching movies, reading and communicating with fellow passengers over Facebook Messenger. “We are coping well though and have watched three movies already and read a lot of our books,” Ms. Baldwin said in an e-mail Friday afternoon shortly before the ship’s test results were released. “We are hopeful that they will let us out at some point for some fresh air."
Ship staff had asked for permission to allow passengers to leave their cabins Friday for some exercise, but U.S. public health officials said no, she said.
Neither Ms. Baldwin nor Ms. Torontow were showing any symptoms and were pleased with how the cruise line was handling the situation, but Ms. Torontow said she worried for what could come next. “We’re happy to be tested but we just don’t know what happens if our test comes back negative.”
Mr. Pence told reporters that some of the 19 crews members who tested positive were likely infected during the previous cruise to Mexico in February.
Marie Elise Marino travelled with her husband, brother and sister-in-law on that cruise. She returned home to Terrebonne, Que., near Montreal, two weeks ago unaware that anything was amiss until she began to hear reports on Facebook about the California passenger who died. She received an e-mail from the cruise line earlier this week asking how she was doing and providing a form she could use to call local hospitals if she was exhibiting symptoms.
Ms. Marino, 75, said she and her family members have felt well since returning home. “It would be a lie to say I’m not worried at all,” she said. “I’m not that worried, because it’s been two weeks and I’m OK. But it’s been in my head all the time."
The federal government said it is aware of the Canadians on the Grand Princess. “We are in contact with the cruise line and local authorities and we are monitoring the situation closely,” Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Krystyna Dodds said in an e-mail.
On Friday, Ontario’s Health Ministry said a husband and wife who had been on the ship last month tested positive for the virus. The man and woman, who were tested at a Mississauga hospital, are well and recovering at home in self-isolation, officials said. On Thursday, Alberta said it had identified its first case of COVID-19 in a woman in her 50s who had also been on the ship last month.
The government-owned Alberta Treasury Branch closed two bank branches after learning that the woman was an employee. Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said Friday that health officials had contacted the woman’s friends and close family and don’t believe she attended any large events. The bank closed the branches as a precaution, and any employees who had contact with the woman have been told to self-isolate, said Dr. Hinshaw. She said her office is working to track down 44 people who had been on the ship and since returned to Alberta.
Dozens more Canadians have fallen sick overseas, including some who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the Japanese coast, which was put under a quarantine in February that worsened the spread of the disease. Canadians infected on the ship remained in Japan for treatment, while those who were cleared were flown back to Canada and quarantined for 14 days at the Nav Centre in Cornwall, Ont.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said on Friday that all 129 repatriated Canadians have been released from the quarantine. None developed the illness caused by the coronavirus.
With reports from James Keller and Carly Weeks