Hundreds of foreign passengers, including dozens of Americans and Egyptians, were potentially exposed to the virus between mid-February and early March – a dramatic example of how, from a single overlooked infection, the new coronavirus could quickly multiply and be transported across the globe .
At least six Americans infected aboard Asara have returned to Maryland, according to Governor Larry Hogan (R), potentially seeding their communities with the virus. Twelve others reportedly tested positive in the Houston area. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is contacting dozens of other Americans who were on board Asara in February to test them or ask them to self-quarantine.
Even after the Egyptian health authorities were informed on March 1 that the Taiwanese American woman was carrying the virus while on Asara and that she could infect others on the ship, the ship sailed on another cruise on March 5 while the Egyptian health officials awaited the results of crew tests.
At that point, an American travel agency that books Nile cruises had been informed by the CDC that Americans on an earlier Asara cruise may have been infected. Gate 1 travel agency contacted the boat operator and the Egyptian embassy in Washington, according to the company’s vice president of marketing, Marty Seslow. Gate 1 was informed that all the crew had tested negative for the virus, Seslow said.
“They gave us information that nobody was sick and everyone was fine,” said Seslow. “Within 24 hours, we were told that dozens were sick.”
Although Gate 1 was initially informed that the crew had tested negative, Seslow said the company decided to inform customers on board of the CDC notification and offered to end the voyage. But the passengers chose to stay on board.
“The reason we decided to stay on the ship is because we were initially told that the crew had been tested and that they had tested negative and that the ship had been disinfected twice,” said Amy Khamissian, 65, paralegal of Miami. “We thought that we would be safer in this restricted area. At that point we were misinformed.”
Less than a day later, when the ship reached Luxor, the passengers’ throats and nostrils were swabbed and blood was collected.
Thirty-three of them, including at least three Americans and 16 other foreigners, proved positive in addition to the 12 infected crew members. Infected passengers and crew members were taken to a hospital in northern Egypt for isolation and treatment. The rest, including at least 26 Americans and 56 other foreigners, were quarantined on the ship.
With 64 comfortable cabins and two suites, the Asara is popular with American and other foreign travelers. It has five decks, including a sun terrace and swimming pool, and can carry up to 132 passengers. Gate 1 alone has placed an average of 35 American customers on each weekly sailing since the beginning of the year, including the last trip.
Every Wednesday the ship leaves for a cruise between the southern city of Aswan and Luxor. American passengers on four trips – departing February 12, February 19, February 26 and March 4 – are now considered people of interest by the CDC, Seslow said, adding that Gate 1 was cooperating with U.S. health authorities and the State Department.
Retired Pamela Allen, 69, and Harold Allen, 72, from Pennsylvania, boarded Asara on February 26. They were in Egypt on a nine-day trip, thinking they were moving away from the coronavirus riot. Their vacation destination seemed to be free from cases popping up in other parts of the world.
“Nobody mentioned the virus,” said Pamela Allen. “We would see it in the news, but we weren’t worried. It was very far.”
But towards the end of their cruise, the crew members started to “clean up like crazy,” he said. “We haven’t thought about it at the moment,” he said. “Hindsight tells us now that they knew it.”
When the couple returned to Pennsylvania on March 5, U.S. customs officials asked if they had been to China. When they said they traveled to Egypt, they were greeted. Only when they saw the news that their ship had been quarantined did they wonder if they too should be in quarantine. Neither of them showed signs of illness.
Their tour company, Gate 1, contacted the local health department, who called the Allens and told them to stay home. Officials wearing masks, clothes and gloves came to their door with paperwork and masks to be worn by the couple.
“It could be worse,” said Pamela Allen. “We could be quarantined in Egypt.”
On March 6, the same day as Asara sailed for Luxor on the last cruise, Hogan reported that three Montgomery County residents, Md., he had tested positive for the virus and said that everyone had contracted it on a cruise to Asara.
The three travelers had returned to the United States on February 20. When they were tested for the virus on March 4, one had attended an event near Philadelphia, making contact with students and teachers from a local school, said the governor. He added that the school district subsequently closed five schools.
Another of the three travelers went to an event in a retired community in Rockville, Md., and came into contact with between 70 and 100 people. Hogan urged everyone who attended the Rockville event to contact a doctor or call a Maryland hotline.
He later said that three other Maryland residents – two from Prince George County and one from Montgomery – had been infected with Asara. At least 12 cases of novel coronaviruses in the Houston area are linked to that ship, according to the Houston Chronicle.
There are reportedly more than 110 cases of foreigners testing coronavirus positive after a recent tourist trip to Egypt, including Nile cruises. They include citizens of Greece, France, Canada and Americans from several states, including Iowa, Florida and California. In Virginia, at least four coronavirus cases are linked to Nile cruises. It was not made public if the infected had been on board Asara.
Opportunity for the pathogen
Asara cruises, which range from two to seven nights, typically stop in the cities of the Nile temple of Edfu, Kom Ombo and Esna. There, Asara’s passengers would have been in close contact with dozens of merchants in the markets, as well as hundreds of passengers from other boats. When docked, boats are often attached to each other, and Asara passengers cross other ships to reach the shore, and passengers from other ships cross Asara. The crews of different ships would interact.
“If the crew had been infected. . . they would pose a danger to everyone, “said the Luxor health official.
None of the 12 infected Asara crew members showed symptoms, according to Egyptian health officials. They were all members of the domestic staff, who cleaned the cabins, washed the linen and carried the luggage, said Luxor’s health officer and the quarantined crew member who is still on the boat and spoke on the phone.
Some infected crew members have gone on leave to visit their families, said the quarantined crew member, who said he was aware of seven such cases. Their families, he said, have been tested for the virus, although they didn’t know the results. His own family, however, has not been tested. Nor did any merchant in Nile cities visit Asara passengers, the health official said.
“If they had shown symptoms, they would have gone to the hospital,” he said. “Our Aswan hospital did not receive a single case.”
The outbreak on the Asara torpedoed the tourist season. In recent days there has been a sharp drop in the number of foreign tourists who came to Luxor, home to the famous Karnak Temple and the tomb of the young king Tutankhamun, and a huge drop in local incomes.
Farrag Yousef, 49, a tour guide, recently turned down a job on a cruise ship. “Many of my tour guide friends are also afraid,” he said. “We are afraid of capturing the crown.”
On the Asara, the crew members worry about the future. The quarantined crew member, a 30-year-old cook, has a wife and they are expecting their first child. They and his mother depend on his Asara $ 200 monthly salary.
But now he is worried about never finding a job. Even if it turns out negative, he fears that there will forever be a stigma associated with Asara. The relatives of the crew members have already been harassed. “They are targeted,” said the cook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears attacks on his own family.
“It’s a very weak virus”
In an attempt to defuse fears of the virus and entice tourists to return, officials from the Egyptian moorland in Luxor randomly tested more than 2,400 people in hotels and cruise ships this week, said the senior health official. All of them tested negative, he said.
“It’s a very weak virus,” he said.
This was enough to convince Egyptian health officials to end the quarantine of at least 82 foreigners who had been detained aboard the Asara and send them home, although the potential incubation period during which they could develop symptoms was not even half. The day before, he had been told that they would be tested again by health officials, according to the passengers.
Everyone left Egypt for commercial flights.
Ashley Colette, one of the passengers, traveled from Luxor to Cairo to Dallas. “They didn’t even check my temperature at any of the airports,” he said.
When she got home, she sent an email to the Texas Department of Health asking for another coronavirus test, hoping to confirm that she was still virus-free, but the department replied that she couldn’t get tested because had no symptoms of coronavirus disease.
“It’s as if a lot of people aren’t taking it seriously,” he said.
Kornfield reported from Washington. Rebecca Tan in Washington contributed to this report.