Cruise companies will change how they board passengers after Princess Cruises said Saturday that a California man who died on Wednesday was likely infected with the coronavirus before he boarded the Grand Princess last month.
The discovery that a Grand Princess passenger apparently boarded the ship with an infection suggests that community spread began weeks before officials first diagnosed the nation’s first coronavirus case of unknown origin, also a California resident.
In a conference call with reporters Saturday evening, Grant Tarling, the chief medical officer for Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Princess Cruises, said the man boarded the ship in San Francisco on Feb. 11, when it set sail for Mexico.
Tarling said the man sought medical treatment from the ship’s medical center on Feb. 20 and reported symptoms of an “acute respiratory illness” for about a week. Since Tarling noted that the novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, has an incubation period of five to six days, it’s likely that the man was infected prior to boarding the ship.
“We believe this case was community acquired in California and brought on the ship,” Tarling said.
Tarling said Princess was told on March 2 that the man, in his early 70s, had tested positive for coronavirus in Placer County, California. The man died on Wednesday at a hospital in Roseville, California, where he had been placed in medical isolation. Tarling didn’t say if anyone knew how and where the man became infected.
Tarling added a waiter on the Grand Princess who had come into contact with the California passenger was one of 19 Princess employees who tested positive for coronavirus on Friday. Two passengers also tested positive.
Since returning to San Francisco from Mexico on Feb. 21, the ship sailed to Hawaii. It is now holding off shore near San Francisco with about 3,500 passengers and crew members, awaiting word from local, state and federal officials about what will happen next.
The Grand Princess is the second Princess Cruises ship in recent weeks to be put in limbo due to the coronavirus. Last month, the Diamond Princess was held for nearly two weeks off the coast of Japan as officials figured out what to do with its passengers and crew. Of the roughly 2,700 passengers on board, more than 700 tested positive for coronavirus, and six died.
New boarding protocols
Earlier Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf met with officials from cruise companies in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and announced new procedures cruise operators will adopt to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus on their ships.
Pence said the goal of Saturday’s meeting was for the cruise industry “to step up their efforts to protect the health and safety of their passengers, their crews and the communities to which they all return.”
“The American people value our cruise line industry,” Pence said. “Nevertheless, we all recognize the recent challenges posed on the Diamond Princess and the ongoing challenge with the Grand Princess in the spread of the coronavirus.”
Within the next 72 hours, the industry, with the assistance of the DHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Coast Guard, Pence said cruise operators will develop new guidelines in three areas:
- Further enhancement of entry and exit screening and shipboard testing for the coronavirus.
- New quarantine standards will be coordinated with the CDC for all cruise ships.
- A protocol to move any patients that contract the coronavirus or otherwise become seriously ill to land-based facilities.
Pence said the approach to screening, testing and handling ill passengers and crew will be an industry-led effort. He added there was no need to discourage people from taking cruises, other than the most at-risk population — specifically senior citizens with serious, underlying health conditions.
Pence said he saw no need to discourage Americans from taking cruises or traveling in general.
In the conference call, Tarling said Carnival would encourage more widespread use of hand sanitizer and regular handwashing among its passengers and crew. He also said ships would be supplied with a disinfectant that can kill the coronavirus in 30 seconds.
Tarling also said the company would advise its passengers to practice social distancing, such as sitting at least one seat away from their dining companions.
“It’s all being done fleet-wide,” he said. “We’ve adopted these measures throughout our entire fleet.”
The Cruise Line Industry Association, a trade group, said in a statement it would provide more details about the new procedures in the coming days.
“We are hard at work already,” said Adam Goldstein global chairman of the industry group.
Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises, said in the conference call that the coronavirus had created a new reality for the cruise industry worldwide, adding, “We intend to be flexible and adapt.”