Twenty-one people on the Grand Princess cruise ship, 19 of them crew members, tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus Friday, Vice President Mike Pence announced at a press conference.
The announcement comes the same day as the death of a second person who disembarked from the ship’s previous cruise in California. More than 3,500 passengers and crew members are quarantined on board the ship as it sails back and forth off the coast of California awaiting word from authorities about what is next. The company heard about the Grand Princess test results for the first time during Pence’s press conference.
Pence said the ship will be taken to a “noncommercial port” over the weekend and everyone on board will be tested for the virus. “Those that need to be quarantined will be quarantined, those who require additional medical attention will receive it,” he said.
The 2,422 passengers and 1,111 crew members from 54 countries currently on board left San Francisco on Feb. 21 and were expected to return on Saturday after visiting Hawaii and Mexico. But the ship went back to California after a 71-year-old man who sailed on the ship Feb. 11-21 died of COVID-19 near Sacramento on Wednesday. A second person who was on that cruise died Friday near San Jose. He was a 72-year-old man.
The California National Guard airlifted test kits to the ship Thursday, then brought them back to a state lab to be tested.
Princess Cruises, owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., is confining passengers to their cabins. Only symptomatic crew members were being similarly isolated as of Thursday, and crew members were not being required to wear personal protective equipment. Princess Cruises said crew members who have tested positive are now isolated in single cabins. The company and the CDC did not respond to requests for comment about the protective gear.
When another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined in Japan in February, sick crew members slept in cabins with crew members who continued to work across the ship, undermining the effectiveness of the quarantine. Nearly 700 people who were on the cruise tested positive and six died.
Cruise travel warning
Pence, whom President Trump authorized last month to coordinate the government’s response to the coronavirus, will meet with cruise company executives at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. The administration is considering a cruise ship travel warning as it scrambles to contain the spread of the virus, Reuters reported. The U.S. is reporting nearly 300 cases and 14 deaths. Cruise companies have not yet heard from the administration about the possibility of a travel warning, company sources said.
The industry’s lobbying group, Cruise Lines International Association, called any travel warning “unwarranted” and out of step with World Health Organization advice against travel restrictions.
“Singling out the travel and tourism industry, and cruise lines specifically, will have significant detrimental impacts — some possibly irreversible — on the national and local economies,” CLIA said in a statement.
At a news conference in Palm Beach on Friday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he asked the White House and U.S. Coast Guard if they have a stockpile of resources ready to reach, test and potentially evacuate cruise passengers in case of a coronavirus outbreak on a Florida ship.
“The answer has been yes,” Rubio said. “They’re building into their stockpiles, both for the emergency fund at the CDC and the bill we just passed yesterday.”
Rubio said they also discussed providing COVID-19 tests to cruise ships before they leave port if a case crops up at sea. A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean told the Miami Herald that the company has had difficulty sourcing kits and is looking to other countries to supply them.
Cruise companies have been screening passengers for symptoms of the virus and denying boarding to people who have traveled to areas with large outbreaks, including China, South Korea and parts of Italy.
Passenger life on board the Grand Princess
For current Grand Princess passengers Gregory and Cathy Rafanelli of Seattle, ages 73 and 67, that screening was a form the couple was asked to fill out before boarding, vouching that they felt well and had not visited the countries on the restricted list.
“We had to fill out a sheet saying we didn’t have symptoms of coronavirus,” Gregory Rafanelli said. “We had to self-certify that we weren’t symptomatic. It was totally up to our honesty to report it.”
The couple said the cruise, their 40th with Carnival Corp., was uneventful until they received a letter from Princess Cruises under their door Thursday advising that the ship was returning to California instead of visiting Mexico. Now, the couple is confined to their cabin. Still, their biggest concern is not being able to play cards with their friends on the cruise.
“We have a fully functioning bathroom, which is much better than some of the power outages that have happened on cruise ships in the past,” Gregory Rafanelli said. “Ninety-five percent of the population of the world would love to have our living situation right now.”
Princess Cruises is providing free Wi-Fi and phone access so that passengers can keep in touch with family. The ship’s medical team is distributing a form to passengers so they can request prescription refills.
The Rafanellis aren’t worried about dying from COVID-19 because they are in good health and relatively young compared to others on board, Gregory said. He feels bad for passengers cooped up in inside cabins and is grateful that his has a window.
Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.