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Coronavirus: Frustrations mount as Grand Princess passengers remain on ship

Demand for more COVID-19 tests
WATCH: The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has risen to 19, with Florida reporting its first deaths outside the west coast. Meanwhile, a cruise ship remains in limbo off the coast of California, and at least 21 of the 3,500 passengers have now contracted COVID-19. As Abigail Bimman reports, the supply of test kits isn't keeping up with the country's demand.

Cruise officials and passengers confined to their rooms on a ship circling international waters off the San Francisco Bay voiced mounting frustration as the weekend wore on with no direction from authorities on where to go after 21 people on board tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The Grand Princess was forbidden to dock in San Francisco amid evidence that the vessel had been the breeding ground for a cluster of nearly 20 cases that resulted in at least one death after its previous voyage. The ship is carrying more than 3,500 people from 54 countries, including 237 Canadians.

Jan Swartz, group president of Princess Cruises and Carnival Australia, told reporters Saturday that cruise officials want guests and crew off the ship as soon as possible, but the decision-making is out of their hands.

At least 21 people aboard Grand Princess test positive for COVID-19
At least 21 people aboard Grand Princess test positive for COVID-19

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“From where we sit, there are many different authorities involved in the decision, and we are awaiting that decision,” she said. “So we are hopeful that decision will be made quickly so our guests and team can be cared for.”

The U.S. death toll from the virus climbed to 19, with all but three of the victims in Washington state. The number of infections swelled to more than 400, scattered across states. Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas reported their first cases.

CORONAVIRUS CRUISE SHIP

In California, state authorities were working with federal officials to bring the 951-foot (290-metre) Grand Princess cruise ship to a non-commercial port and test those aboard.

Vice-President Mike Pence said at a Saturday meeting with cruise line executives in Florida that officials were still working on a plan.

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“All passengers and crew will be tested for the coronavirus and quarantined as necessary,” Pence said.

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Princess said the ship is about 50 miles (80 kilometres) off the coast of San Francisco. It said a critically ill passenger was taken from the ship to a medical facility for treatment unrelated to the virus.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: U.S. cancer patient aboard Grand Princess could miss chemotherapy

While health officials said about 1,100 crew members will remain aboard, passengers could be disembarked to face quarantine, possibly at U.S. military bases or other sites, as were hundreds of Americans exposed to the virus on another cruise ship in January.

On social media, people pleaded Saturday with elected officials to let the ship dock as they endured a second full day confined to their rooms as officials disclosed more information about how they think the outbreak occurred.

Officials believe a 71-year-old Northern California man who later died of the virus was probably sick when he boarded the ship for a Feb. 11 cruise to Mexico, said Grant Tarling, chief medical officer for Carnival Corporation.

COVID-19: Pence says everyone on Grand Princess cruise to be tested after 21 confirmed to have virus
COVID-19: Pence says everyone on Grand Princess cruise to be tested after 21 confirmed to have virus

The passenger visited the medical centre the day before disembarking with symptoms of respiratory illness, he said. Others who were on that voyage also have tested positive in Northern California, Minnesota, Illinois, Hawaii, Utah and Canada.

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The passenger likely infected his dining room server, who also tested positive for the virus, Tarling said. Two passengers now on the ship who have the virus were not on the previous cruise, he said.

Passenger Karen Dever of Moorestown, New Jersey, agreed she should be tested but wants officials to let her go if her results come back negative.

“Fourteen more days on this ship, I think by the end I will need a mental health visit,” she said with a laugh. “I’m an American. I should be able to come home.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 21 cases of virus confirmed on cruise ship with 237 Canadians

Rex Lawson, 86, of Santa Cruz County in California, said he and his wife were lucky to have a balcony and fresh air. But he feels for travellers confined to interior rooms.

“It’s quite anxious because we don’t know what’s going on. I guess nobody knows what’s going on,” he said. “It looks like we get information from the television first and then the captain.”

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President Donald Trump, speaking Friday at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said he would prefer not to allow the passengers onto American soil but will defer to medical experts.

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“I don’t need to have the numbers (of U.S. cases) double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” Trump said while touring the CDC in Atlanta. “And it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship either. OK? It wasn’t their fault either.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: How gaps in U.S. health coverage could affect Canada’s fight against COVID-19

Another Princess ship, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined for two weeks in Yokohama, Japan, last month because of the virus. Ultimately, about 700 of the 3,700 people aboard became infected in what experts pronounced a public-health failure, with the vessel essentially becoming a floating germ factory.

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Experts say recirculated air from a cruise ship’s ventilation system, plus the close quarters and communal settings, make passengers and crew vulnerable to infectious diseases.

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Experts say ship air conditioning systems are not designed to filter out particles as small as the coronavirus, allowing the disease to rapidly circulate to other cabins.

READ MORE: ‘Think twice’ before booking a cruise vacation: Canada’s top health official

“The passengers should be quarantined on shore if there is a suitable facility,” said Qingyan Chen, a Purdue University air quality expert, in an email.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 100,000 people and killed over 3,400, the vast majority of them in China. Most cases have been mild, and more than half of those infected have recovered.