WORLDWIDE (AP)—Cruise ships hit by coronavirus outbreaks have quickly found themselves with no ports for thousands of passengers as countries on four continents have quarantined vessels or kept them at sea for days.
Keeping all the passengers on board instead of letting them disembark on land is a strategy that can backfire, however, according to experts, because the ventilation systems and close quarters of cruise ships make them ideal places for illness to jump from one person to the next.
“They’re not designed as quarantine facilities, to put it mildly,” said Don Milton, an epidemiologist with the University of Maryland.
A ship with more than 3,500 people aboard was sailing in circles off the coast of California March 7 after 19 crew members and two passengers tested positive for the new virus.
While restaurants and other shipboard locations were closed, passengers were able to watch TV and use the internet, or if they were lucky enough to have one, go outside on their balcony overlooking the water.
Passenger Karen Schwartz Dever said she and her husband were enjoying their balcony and keeping themselves busy with playing cards, while meals and water were being delivered by room service. But she worried about some of the other passengers.
Milton, who studies the spread of virus particles in the air, said recirculating air on a cruise ship’s ventilation system, along with people living in close quarters and in communal settings, make the vessels vulnerable to the spread of infection.
Top cruise line executives met March 7 with Vice President Mike Pence at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after which Pence announced “significant changes” to the industry going forward.
Pence said cruise officials agreed to enhanced entry and exit screenings and to establish shipboard testing for the virus, along with new quarantine standards established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The industry also was asked to come up with and fund a new plan on how to transport cruise passengers who contract the disease.
Princess officials said the new protocols include asking all new passengers to sign a health declaration, and temperature screenings as passengers leave. Anyone coming from a “high-risk area is also undergoing a medical evaluation,” Dr. Grant Tarling, chief medical officer for Carnival Corporation, told reporters.