The 2019 coronavirus has drawn similarities with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a coronavirus that killed more than 700 people in 2002-2003.
It’s been an emotional ride for guests on board Holland America’s MS Westerdam. But now, the ship’s aimless journey is coming to a close: Passengers began to disembark early Friday at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, their detour the result of fears around coronavirus.
“The first passengers are off the Westerdam and headed home!” the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia tweeted early Friday local time. “We’re happy to greet them as they step onto dry land. Thank you to the government of Cambodia who helped this happen.”
The ship’s 1,455 passengers had been waiting for the all-clear from the Cambodian Health Ministry. After 20 samples were tested for coronavirus at the Pasteur Laboratory in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, passengers received permission to disembark.
Erik Elvejord, Holland America’s public relations director, said the process of getting passengers home would take a few days, with the goal of having everyone off the ship by Sunday. The cruise originally was scheduled to end on Saturday.
Hundreds of cruise ship passengers cheered as they got off the ship, and Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted them.
“Today, although Cambodia is a poor country, Cambodia has always joined the international community to solve the problems that the world and our region are facing,” he said as the first passengers disembarked.
“How wonderful it is to be here. Thank you very much to the prime minister. He has a wonderful heart,” said Anna Marie Melon, from Queensland, Australia. “I’m very excited (to be here),” she said as she waved a rose Hun Sen handed to her.
The passengers cheered as they walked toward waiting buses and waved goodbye to other passengers watching from the ship’s deck.
“Your country did a great job. Did a wonderful job. Thank you very much. We appreciate it very much,” Joe Spaziani, 74, from Florida, told reporters. He and many other passengers wore a krama, a traditional Cambodian scarf, around their necks.
Hun Sen has said he acted for humanitarian reasons and said at the dock he wanted to allow passengers to return to their home countries.
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“If Cambodia did not allow this ship to dock here, where should this ship go?” he said. “I want to inform Cambodians and the world that I coming here even for a short time means this is no time for discrimination and to be scared, but a time for everyone to be in solidarity to solve the problems we are facing now.”
A strong supporter of China, Hun Sen has downplayed threats from the new virus and unlike other Asian nations, he declined to ban direct flights between Cambodia and China, saying that would disturb bilateral relations and hurt his country’s economy. Cambodia has one confirmed case of the virus, a visitor from China, despite its popularity with Chinese tourists.
Mang Sineth, the vice governor in Preah Sihanouk province, told reporters 414 passengers will leave the port Friday and fly to Cambodia’s capital before traveling to their final destinations. Three flights from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh were arranged to take all the ship’s passengers.
He said that if the flying arrangements went smoothly, all passengers would probably be leaving Sihanoukville by Sunday.
The company was working to book return flights for passengers from Phnom Penh. In a tweet early Friday, the embassy told the ship’s U.S. passengers to look at the airport for personnel wearing blue hats with an American flag, who would assist them with their departure.
U.S. citizen passengers from the #Westerdam, look for the embassy table at the Phnom Penh airport for questions about onward travel. We’re in blue U.S. Embassy hats with the American flag. 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/uNY4IBRG9E
— US Embassy Cambodia (@USEmbPhnomPenh) February 14, 2020
Thursday morning, the Westerdam had docked with authorization from the kingdom. A team from the embassy was dispatched to the port to assist the U.S. citizens on board.
Lorraine Oliveira, a passenger from the United Kingdom who was traveling on Westerdam with her family, told USA TODAY in a message on Thursday that they were “mainly relieved as something positive is happening now but still apprehensive for fear something may go wrong at the last minute.”
Oliveira saw inspectors on board carrying out health checks. She explained that while she’s not certain of the exact process, passengers were receiving letters to their staterooms with instructions. They hadn’t received a letter at the time and so were sitting tight. Passengers still have full access to the ship apart from duty-free shops.
“Inspection and clearance procedures are proceeding,” Elvejord told USA TODAY. “Given the number of organizations involved in supporting today’s complex operations, it is taking time.”
Elvejord noted that charter flights to Phnom Penh had been secured for Friday.
“We are grateful to everyone here in Cambodia who are helping and welcoming us today,” he concluded.
After transferring to Phnom Penh via charter flights, passengers will catch flights home, which have been arranged and paid for by Holland America. All passengers will also receive a full refund and a future cruise credit.
The Westerdam departed Hong Kong Feb. 1 and originally was scheduled to disembark in Shanghai on Saturday before coronavirus gripped mainland China and forced itinerary changes. It was turned away from multiple other disembarkation points.
First, it moved to Yokohama, Japan, only for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to bar the vessel from entering his country. Next, Guam, a U.S. territory, turned it away, rejecting a request from the State Department to let the ship in.
And on Tuesday – one day after Holland America announced it had gotten permission for the ship to disembark at Bangkok’s Laem Chabang port – Thailand’s public health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said he issued orders denying the ship permission to disembark there.
The Philippines also barred the ship from making a scheduled port call earlier in the sailing.
Relief, frustration, skepticism and medical needs: Life on Holland America cruise ship stuck in limbo
Infosnips Coronavirus cases on Diamond Princess up to 218
Thursday brought mixed news for the passengers on the Diamond Princess, which has been quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, since Feb. 4. (It originally set sail on Jan. 20 with 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew.)
The bad news: Princess announced that an additional 44 cases had been diagnosed, bringing the total to at least 218. The sick have all been removed from the ship and taken to facilities onshore. Because at least 20 of those are Americans, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in Tokyo to assist Japanese health officials.
The good news: Princess Cruises announced early Thursday that Japanese health officials would facilitate the voluntary disembarkation of some guests, allowing them to complete the final three days of their 14-day quarantine at an onshore location.
The disembarkation will take place in phases. The most medically vulnerable passengers will be included in the first phase, including the elderly and those guests with pre-existing health conditions.
Diamond Princess: Japanese officials, cruise ship to let some passengers off early
“According to officials, guests in the first group will be tested for the 2019 novel coronavirus,” Princess Cruises said in a statement provided by Negin Kamali, director of public relations. “If the test is positive, they will be transported to a local hospital for further evaluation and isolation. If the test is negative, they will be given the option to leave the ship and be transported to a quarantine housing facility.”
Those that choose to leave the ship for the remainder of the quarantine, scheduled to end on Feb. 19, will stay in a Japanese facility with individual rooms and bathrooms. The facility does not include a clinic but prescription medicine will be provided.
Their meals, served in Japanese-style bento boxes, will accommodate certain medical conditions but not preferences.
Princess Cruises said that all remaining guests are welcome to stay on board through the end of the quarantine if they desire.
To date, passengers who remain on the ship have been instructed to stay in their suites or cabins during the quarantine. Those in interior cabins with no window or outdoor access have been able to go on deck for up to an hour and a half but must stay at least three feet from fellow passengers, Matt Smith, an attorney from Sacramento, California, and a passenger on the quarantined ship, told USA TODAY on Friday.
Infosnips Number of cases spikes 33% overnight
The number of coronavirus cases spiked 33% overnight Wednesday, leaping from 45,210 from 60,349 as of 9 a.m. EST on Thursday.
The spikes overseas are at least partly due to new counting standards implemented by China, which reported Wednesday that it is tallying infections differently. The nation previously only counted a coronavirus case as confirmed when a person tested positive for the virus, but that thinking has been revised, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday night.
Your guide to coronavirus: Everything you need to know about Covid-19
The new numbers of deaths push the coronavirus well past that of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, officials said. But the mortality rate – a statistic that measures the deadliness of the virus on infected persons – of SARS is still significantly higher than coronavirus. The latest figures show that coronavirus has a mortality rate of 2.3%, compared to nearly 9.6% for SARS.
As was the case with SARS, the vast majority of coronavirus cases (59,822) and deaths (1,367) are in mainland China.
The government is no longer requiring a positive test, the news agency said, a decision made partly because testing kits are in short supply. New cases are now being confirmed if a person is simply diagnosed by a doctor or other health professional; China says the new standard will help treat people more quickly once they exhibit symptoms of the virus, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
Contributing: John Bacon, Doug Stanglin, Mike James, Curtis Tate, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
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