With thousands trapped on board, Grand Princess cruise ship awaits coronavirus test results

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Medical staff aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship which is idling off the coast of San Francisco, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Bill Pearce via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY CALIF-VIRUS-CRUISE BY TIM ARANGO, SARAH MERVOSH AND JENNY GROSS FOR MARCH 5, 2020. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --

A normal day on board the Grand Princess cruise ship might go like this: Sleep late under a “European-inspired duvet.” Take a dip in one of the pools on deck. Afternoon tea promises white tablecloths and finger sandwiches. Dinner could be lobster tails and steak on a private balcony. And all evening, there are plenty of things to do, from theater to gambling to dancing.

“Expect the extraordinary,” the company says in its advertising.

Yet Thursday, the cruise ship, on its way back to California from Hawaii with more than 2,000 passengers on board, was idling off the coast of San Francisco, as officials scrambled to confront the latest threat from the coronavirus and passengers panicked amid fears that they could be among the sick.

Officials flew test kits by helicopter out to the Grand Princess after authorities learned that a patient who had died from the coronavirus had previously traveled on the vessel and that some passengers and crew members on board were showing symptoms.

Eleven passengers and 10 crew members on the ship who were showing symptoms would be tested, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said. “That number may significantly understate” the scope of infection, he said, or “it may indeed be abundance of caution.”

Additionally, 62 people who had traveled at the same time as the man who died were expected to be tested for the virus, which is spreading worldwide and has led to 12 deaths in the United States.

Two black helicopters hovered over the ship on Thursday morning, in the style of a military operation, as officials in camouflage and orange suits lowered what appeared to be a cooler and other gear onto the ship. After testing, the kits will be flown back to a laboratory in Richmond, California, where the results could be available within “a few hours,” Newsom said.

Officials said that the results would likely not be announced until Friday. Bill Pearce, 54, said fellow passengers had been staying in good spirits and milling around the ship until Thursday afternoon, when the captain announced over loudspeakers that all passengers would be confined to their cabins.

“We are seeing some people get kind of snappy,” Pearce said, predicting that tensions would rise the longer the ship was delayed and passengers were forced to stay in their rooms.

“I just stocked up on a bucket of beer and cheese,” he said from a bar at the back of the ship, “and then it’s into the cabin.”

Mark Pace, a passenger aboard the Grand Princess, said Thursday that the passengers were generally staying calm. “But it is getting more stressful as we approach Saturday, the day we’re supposed to dock,” he said.

He said updates from the cruise staff had been slow and that he was dismayed that passengers weren’t given a health screening when they boarded the cruise ship.

“I had expected to have my temperature taken,” he wrote in a tweet to Princess Cruises, the ship’s parent company, on Wednesday. “People that spent thousands of dollars on a cruise are not going to answer truthfully on their health form.”

The panic over the fate of the Grand Princess began after a 71-year-old man who had traveled on a previous leg of the cruise, a round trip from San Francisco to Mexico, died in Placer County after leaving the ship. It was the first death from the coronavirus in California. Another passenger from that leg of the trip also tested positive for the virus and is being treated in California.

The Grand Princess is owned by Princess Cruises, the same company that runs the Diamond Princess, the coronavirus-stricken cruise ship that was quarantined off the coast of Japan last month. The virus circulated among the more than 3,700 crew members and passengers who were waiting out a two-week isolation period in the port city of Yokohama, with more than 700 cases identified from that ship.

The company Thursday said it was canceling an upcoming cruise to Hawaii, which was scheduled to depart San Francisco on Saturday.

When Michele Smith and her husband first heard over a loudspeaker that some passengers aboard would be quarantined, they weren’t too worried and assumed the cruise staff was just taking extra precautions. It wasn’t until several hours later, Wednesday evening, when they found out on television that it was more than that — a passenger who had been aboard the Grand Princess had died.

“That’s when the shock set in — it was like, ‘oh my goodness,’” Smith, a 57-year-old administrative assistant, said.

She said she and her husband, Steven, 71, who live in Paradise, California, keep asking each other if they’re feeling any flulike symptoms. Neither do. They had other questions, too. How long had the man been on the ship? Was he sick while he was on the ship? Why hadn’t they found out earlier? She said the passengers want more guidance on what they can do to protect themselves from getting infected. So far, they’ve just been told to wash their hands, and she’s not sure what else she can do.

Officials in San Francisco were preparing for the possibility that the cruise ship could dock in the city, after passengers and crew members on board were tested for the virus.

If some tests come back positive, it was unclear whether the ship would be quarantined, like the Diamond Princess ship was off the coast of Japan last month, or where or when the vessel would dock. Officials were considering a number of locations for the ship’s return, including San Francisco.

The developments came as officials announced the first two cases of coronavirus in San Francisco on Thursday.

One patient, a man in his 90s with underlying health conditions, was hospitalized in serious condition. The other, a woman in her 40s, was hospitalized in fair condition. The origin of the cases were unknown, which officials said suggested that the virus was spreading in the community.

“Let me very clear: This virus does not discriminate,” Dr. Grant Colfax, the public health director in San Francisco, said, warning against bias toward the Asian community. “Stigma and discrimination is not acceptable in this time when we need to come together as a community to protect public health. All of us need to do our part.”

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