Twenty-one people aboard a giant cruise ship off the coast of California have tested positive for the new coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence, including 19 crew members, announced on Friday.
Pence said the federal government is working with California officials on a plan to bring the ship to a non-commercial port this weekend and 3,500 passengers and crew members will be tested for the virus.
“We will all test on the ship and quarantine if necessary,” said Pence. “But as for the crew of 1,100 members, we expect they will be quarantined on the ship.”
The ship carried 3,533 people, including at least four Australians.
At this stage it is not clear whether the four Australians on board are among the confirmed cases.
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Friday’s test results come amid evidence that the ship was the breeding ground for a deadly mass of at least 10 cases during its previous voyage.
“All passengers and crew will be tested for the virus. Those to be quarantined will be quarantined. Those who need medical attention will receive it,” Pence told the media.
Coronavirus test kits were delivered to the ship on Thursday and samples were collected from 45 people, Princess Cruises said in a statement.
A video posted on social media by the California National Guard shows a military helicopter flying over the ship and lowering the test kits with the rope.
The Grand Princess was arrested near San Francisco on Thursday after a traveler from a previous trip died of COVID-19 disease and several passengers and staff members began reporting flu-like symptoms.
Two people who had been on the ship on her previous voyage contracted the virus. One later died.
The dead person – a 71-year-old man – had been aboard the Grand Princess on her previous trip between San Francisco and Mexico.
Pence said he believed the number of infected people was high among the crew since they had probably been exposed during two previous outings.
The ship had traveled to Hawaii and was returning to the port, but has now been told that it cannot dock until tests confirm whether it is infected.
“The ship will not go ashore until we have adequately assessed the passengers,” said California Govenor Gavin Newsom as he declared a state emergency on Thursday.
The astonished passengers watched the elaborate operation, with their phones ready.
“The CDC (US Centers for Disease Control) team along with test samples just taken from the air from the ship,” passenger Jim Lange wrote on Instagram.
The samples were sent to a nearby laboratory for processing.
In the meantime, all passengers were asked to stay in their cabins while the results were pending.
“Guests are receiving meal deliveries in their cabins via room service and additional television and film options have been added to in-room programming,” said Princess Cruises.
“Guests have also been offered free Internet service to keep in touch with family and loved ones and the ship’s Internet bandwidth has been increased.”
Another Princess cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined for two weeks in Yokohama, Japan last month due to the virus, and in the end about 700 of the 3,700 people on board were infected with what experts have declared a public health failure, with the ship essentially becoming a floating germ factory.
Three dozen passengers on the Grand Princess have had flu-like symptoms in the past two weeks or so, said Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the San Francisco emergency management department.
An epidemiologist studying the spread of viral particles said that recirculating air from a cruise ship’s ventilation system, in addition to close quarters and common spaces, makes passengers vulnerable to infectious diseases.
“They’re not designed as quarantine structures, to put it plainly,” said Don Milton of the University of Maryland. “You will amplify the infection by keeping people on the boat.” He said the fallout from the quarantined ship in Japan demonstrates the urgent need to move people off the ship.
“My advice is to bring people to a safer quarantine environment than a cruise ship,” said Milton.