The Slatest

Passengers Quarantined on Two Cruise Ships Were Released. Then They Tested Positive for Coronavirus.

A woman with a face mask sits looking at the Westerdam cruise ship docked nearby.
A woman sits looking at the Westerdam cruise ship docked nearby in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on Monday.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The extreme logistical challenge of containing coronavirus is perhaps best seen in the experience of two cruise ships, the Diamond Princess and the Westerdam, carrying thousands of tourists from around the world. How each ship was treated in response to the possible outbreak of coronavirus onboard is quite different, but each shows the fallibility of current testing for the virus and the challenges of trying to humanely but effectively corral citizens from around the world and quarantine them to prevent the virus’ spread.

The plight of the Diamond Princess has gotten more attention, as the 17-deck luxury ship sat moored in a harbor in Yokohama, Japan, with 3,700 passengers and crew quarantined inside. The quarantine was imposed after one of the cruise’s passengers from Hong Kong tested positive for coronavirus after disembarking. Over the last 10 days of quarantine, slowly the infection rate ticked upward as the passengers, more than 300 of which were Americans, waited for the two-week quarantine period to expire. Many worried that being held in the ship made it more likely that they would contract the virus. As of Monday, there were 454 confirmed cases on the Diamond Princess.

The experience of the Westerdam has been far different. The ship set sail from Hong Kong on Feb. 1 on a scheduled 14-day cruise with more than 2,250 people onboard. The Westerdam arrived in Cambodia on Thursday after being turned away from a number of scheduled ports in countries unwilling to introduce the potential risk of the virus coming ashore. Cambodia, whose leader is closely aligned with Beijing, which has been downplaying the virus’ impact, agreed to allow the ship dock.

“Amid assurances that the ship was disease free, hundreds of elated passengers disembarked,” the New York Times reports. “Some went sightseeing, visiting beaches and restaurants and getting massages. Others traveled on to destinations around the world. One, however, did not make it much farther than the thermal scanners at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. The passenger, an American, was stopped on Saturday, and later tested positive for the coronavirus.” The positive test was a worrisome sign, and cast doubt on the thousands of other passengers that were now filing out into the world, catching flights home.

“We anticipated glitches, but I have to tell you I didn’t anticipate one of this magnitude,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told the Times. “This could be a turning point.” And not the one everyone was hoping for. The Cambodian government insisted it had screened disembarking passengers using protocols from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whether there was, in fact, a glitch in the screening process remains to be seen, but the Diamond Princess shows how the screening process can fail.

Over the weekend, the U.S. began the evacuating American passengers on board the Diamond Princess in order to bring them back to the U.S. Of the several hundred passengers that left the ship, 14 who were tested and deemed asymptomatic by American health officials and thus “fit to fly,” later tested positive for the virus. The negative tests were conducted 2-3 days before the passengers boarded a charter flight back to the U.S. The State Department says all of the American passengers from the Diamond Princess are being taken to Travis Air Force Base or Joint Base San Antonio for quarantine.