February 13, 2020

'I don't know if I will go home alive': Inside the cruise ship where 3,000+ people are quarantined

Daily Briefing

    * Editor's note: As of Feb. 18, the case count on the cruise ship had risen to 454, including 14 Americans who were among hundreds of Americans evacuated before the quarantine was lifted. The U.S. Department of State and HHS worked together to get U.S. passengers off of the ship and flown to the United States. The infected passengers are now being treated and monitored at hospitals near Travis Air Force Base in California and at the University of Nebraska, according to State Department officials.

    More than 3,000 passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship have been quarantined since Feb. 4 after a passenger tested positive for the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

    Our analysis: The 'recurring themes' of disease outbreaks

    Background

    Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the virus are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said. As of Thursday, health officials reported more than 60,000 cases of the virus globally, with the vast majority of those cases reported in China.

    Details on the quarantine

    The first case detected on the cruise ship involved an 80-year-old passenger who tested positive for the coronavirus on Feb. 1, a week after the passenger boarded the ship from Hong Kong. Now, the case count is up to 219. 

    After the initial case was discovered, the Japanese Ministry of Health placed the ship, which is at a Japanese port, under a two-week quarantine that started Feb. 4.

    The Japanese government has allowed people who test positive for the virus to disembark to be treated at a hospital. In addition, elderly passengers who have pre-existing health conditions or a room without windows may leave as of Friday, Japan's health minister said. However, that means other passengers and crew are restricted to the ship at least until the quarantine lifts on Feb. 19. 

    Some experts, such as David Fisman, an epidemiology professor at the University of Toronto, are skeptical of how effective the quarantine will be. "They've basically trapped a bunch of people in a large container with [the] virus," he said. "So [I'm] assuming 'quarantine' is generating active transmission."

    Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and professor of global health at York University, said, "The Japanese government is probably valuing stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus to their country more than the higher risk of harm to passengers from this mass cruise ship quarantine."

    'I don't know if I will go home alive': What life is like abroad the ship

    Passengers for the most part have been confined to their cabins, the New York Times reports. For a few minutes each day, passengers are permitted to walk above deck, but they must wear face masks and stay at least six feet apart from each other.

    Aun Na Tan, a passenger aboard the ship, in a video posted by Reuters to Twitter, noted that parents cannot see their children if the parents booked their children a separate room.

    Gay Courter, another passenger, in a video SkyNews posted to Twitter, said, "We feel like sitting ducks here."

    But while passengers have been mostly confined to their rooms, there has been much less effort to keep crew members apart, despite the fact that 10 crew members have tested positive for the virus, the Washington Post reports. According to the Post, crew members are still eating in the same mess hall, as well as sharing dishes and toilets.

    One waiter from India, who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity, questioned why crew members hadn't been segregated, like passengers have. "Why are they not segregating us? Are we not part of the ship? If the passengers have been isolated, why haven't we yet?"

    A cook who also spoke on the condition of anonymity told the Post, "This was my first job, and this has happened to me. I am stuck here, and I don't know if I will go home alive."

    Binay Kumar Sarkar, another crew member on the ship, posted a video on Facebook asking Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the United Nations to intervene. He also asked that all crew members get tested as soon as possible.

    However, the Japanese government said its ability to test people for the virus its limited. Specifically, it said it can test at least 1,000 people a day but that it would be "difficult" to test everybody on the Diamond Princess.

    Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises, said, "In this unprecedented situation, the Japanese Ministry of Health authorities are working with us collaboratively on additional enhancements and approving new procedures as we adapt our process to the unique challenges of this situation."

    Masami Sakoi, a senior official in the Japanese Ministry of Health, said the department is aware of the concerns of those onboard and "have been considering measures to address those issues." Sakoi said the government is sending a group of experts onto the ship to assess the living and working conditions.

    "After their assessment of the conditions, we would like to address those issues as much as possible in cooperation with the operating company," Sakoi said (Denyer et al., Washington Post, 2/11; Belluz, Vox, 2/12; Dooley/Rich, New York Times, 2/10; Su, Los Angeles Times, 2/13; Swift/Lies, Reuters, 2/12; Feuer, CNBC,  2/13; Bhattacharya, Wall Street Journal, 2/17).

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