COVID-19 found on cruise ship as more US states report cases

COVID-19 found on cruise ship as more US states report cases

Grand Princess cruise ship circles off the coast of California
The Grand Princess cruise ship circles off the coast of California.

WASHINGTON: Twenty-one people on board a cruise ship stranded off the coast of San Francisco have tested positive for the new coronavirus, United States Vice President Mike Pence said on Friday (Mar 6).

"Among those positive for coronavirus were 19 crew members and two passengers," said Pence, who has been tasked by President Donald Trump to coordinate the US government's response to the outbreak.

Pence said the ship will be brought to a non-commercial dock this weekend and all 3,533 passengers and crew will be tested.

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"We will be testing everyone on the ship and quarantining as necessary," Pence said. "But with regard to the 1,100-member crew, we anticipate that they will be quarantined on the ship."

The Grand Princess has been stranded off the coast of San Francisco since Wednesday - when it was supposed to dock - after it emerged that two people who had been on the ship during its previous voyage had contracted the virus. One of them later died.

Pence said he believes the numbers of those infected was high among the crew, as they had likely been exposed during two previous outings. He added that by the end of next week, he expects four million test kits to be shipped to states impacted by the virus.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would rather have passengers remain on board the vessel, but that he would let others decide if they can disembark.

"I'd rather have them stay on, personally, but I fully understand if they want to take them off," Trump told reporters after touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Allowing passengers onto U.S. soil who might be infected would push up the number of coronavirus cases in the country, he said.

"I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault," Trump said.

Keeping passengers quarantined aboard a coronavirus-hit ship proved to be a disastrous strategy in Japan, leading to one of the world's biggest outbreaks.

Trump on Friday signed a bill allocating US$8.3 billion to stop the virus from spreading. The bill breezed through the Senate with a passing vote of 96-1 on Thursday.

More than US$3 billion of the approved funds will be devoted to research and development of coronavirus vaccines, test kits and treatments. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the illness that began in China and has infected more than 95,000 people in about 80 countries and territories.

READ: Facebook, Google ask San Francisco staff to work from home as coronavirus spreads

An Air National Guard helicopter flew testing kits to the cruise liner after at least 35 people developed flu-like symptoms aboard the ship. Medical staff took samples from 46 passengers and crew to determine if they have contracted the respiratory virus.

The samples were carried back to a state laboratory in the Bay area. Pence said 21 of the tests came back positive, 24 were negative and one was inconclusive.

In the meantime, passengers aboard the ship said they had been largely confined to their staterooms since Thursday afternoon, as the cruise line requested. One passenger who spoke on Thursday with Reuters, Kathy Reid, 67, a retiree from Granbury, Texas, said she and others felt like they were in "limbo".

California Governor Gavin Newsom has insisted that the ship, which had been due to return from Hawaii to its home port in San Francisco on Wednesday, remain at sea until everyone aboard who is sick or at risk of exposure to coronavirus can be tested.

Health officials had said on Thursday they planned to initially test 35 passengers and crew who have reported symptoms consistent with coronavirus, as well as dozens of "holdover" passengers from an earlier voyage to Mexico.

State and local officials acted to halt the cruise liner after learning people aboard had fallen ill and two passengers who traveled on the same vessel last month to Mexico later tested positive for coronavirus.

One, an elderly man from Placer County near Sacramento with underlying health conditions, died this week, marking the first documented coronavirus fatality in California. The other, from the Bay area, was described by Newsom as gravely sick.

Health officials say both individuals likely contracted the virus aboard the ship.

A third passenger from the Mexico trip, a Canadian woman from the province of Alberta, has since been reported by health officials there to have tested positive.

Health officials were also seeking to contact some 2,500 passengers who disembarked in San Francisco on Feb. 21 after the earlier cruise to Mexico.

EIGHT STATES REPORT FIRST CASES

On Friday, eight states - Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Carolina and Hawaii - reported their first cases, meaning more than half of the 50 U.S. states now have the virus.

Word of the new cases capped a week during which the virus began to disrupt daily life for many Americans.

In Seattle, the epicenter of the nation's outbreak, there were school closures and orders to work from home. In areas less affected by the outbreak, music festivals, conferences and sports events were canceled or curtailed as a precaution.

In the most high profile cancellation, the South by Southwest (SXSW) music and technology festival in Austin, Texas, was called off on Friday.

The respiratory illness emerged in China and has spread to more than 90 nations, killing more than 3,400 people and infecting more than 100,000 worldwide.

As stocks plunge and U.S. companies grapple with the economic fallout, the Trump administration is weighing tax relief for the deeply affected cruise, travel and airline industries, according to a source familiar with the plan.

AMERICANS DIVIDED ON DANGERS

Americans are sharply divided over the dangers of the new coronavirus, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Critics of Trump, including Democratic lawmakers, have accused the president of downplaying the significance of the outbreak for political reasons. He has said the risk to Americans is low.

Washington's King County has been the hardest hit area in the United States with at least a dozen of the nation's 15 coronavirus deaths, several of whom were people living at a nursing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.

Officials said a team of 30 medical professionals from the US Public Health Service will deploy on Saturday to help the beleaguered LifeCare nursing home. "We are grateful that the cavalry is arriving," King County Executive Dow Constanine told reporters on Friday.

In Florida, officials on Friday announced two deaths and canceled two Miami music festivals - Ultra and Calle Ocho - because of potential risk that coronavirus could spread at events with large crowds.

For similar reasons, the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament will go ahead at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this weekend but without spectators, the university said on Friday.

The University of Washington announced on Friday that all classes would be held virtually for the rest of the winter term to limit contagion.

Apple Inc on Friday asked staff at its Silicon Valley headquarters to work from home if possible as a "precaution." Gap Inc closed its New York headquarters because one employee had tested positive.

In Maryland, the focus was on a patient with coronavirus who attended a public event last Saturday at a retirement community in the Washington suburb of Rockville and came into contact with as many as 100 people, Governor Larry Hogan said.

The crisis has hit stocks hard. The benchmark S&P 500 closed down another 1.7 per cent on Friday, after falling nearly 3 per cent the day before.

As new states report their first cases, others watched their tally grow. Cases in New York jumped to 44 from 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, adding that some 4,000 people in the state were under precautionary quarantine and 44 under mandatory quarantine.

But he also tried to stem any sense of panic.

"I think the anxiety and the fear is more of a problem than the virus," Cuomo said.

Amid widespread criticism of not enough tests available for states in need, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that "some missteps" had initially slowed the distribution of tests, but said the overall response was going well.

"In the next couple of weeks we should be ratcheted up to get many more out," Fauci said on NBC's Today program.

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Source: Agencies/nh(rw)

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