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Coronavirus: Cruise Ship In Limbo Off California After A Former Passenger Died

At least 100 people aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship will be tested for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 after a former passenger died from the disease this week. The ship is seen here in a photo from 2001.
Luis M. Alvarez
At least 100 people aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship will be tested for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 after a former passenger died from the disease this week. The ship is seen here in a photo from 2001.

Updated at 3 p.m. ET

The Grand Princess cruise ship is in limbo off the California coast after a former passenger became the state's first known person to die from COVID-19. Health workers say they will now test some current passengers to determine whether they have the respiratory virus.

"We are going to be flying testing kits to the cruise ship, and we are going to be sending those quickly back to the state," Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a news conference late Wednesday. "We'll be able to test very quickly within just a few hours."

Eleven passengers and 10 crew members were showing symptoms of COVID-19, the governor said, adding that the number "may significantly understate" the presence of the coronavirus on the cruise ship.

Newsom declared a state of emergency in California on Wednesday to help his state cope with its first COVID-19 death and more than 50 confirmed cases overall.

Officials believe the passenger who died, an elderly man, was exposed to the novel coronavirus during a trip from San Francisco to Mexico in the middle of February. Health officials are now tracking down thousands of people who were on the same trip and might have been exposed to the virus.

The man was on the ship from Feb. 11-21. He had underlying health conditions and spent nearly a week at home before being hospitalized in California's Placer County, health officials say. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance on Feb. 27.

Another California resident who was on the same trip also has been found to be infected, Newsom said. That person is currently hospitalized in Sonoma County, as member station KQED reports.

The Grand Princess is carrying around 2,500 passengers and normally has some 1,150 crew members. The cruise line says only a small fraction of that number will be tested, with the remainder of the people on board told to monitor themselves for any possible symptoms of COVID-19.

"There are fewer than 100 guests and crew identified for testing," Princess Cruises says. The number includes passengers who were on the vessel for both the Mexico and Hawaii cruises, as well as people with influenza-like symptoms and "guests currently under care for respiratory illness."

To carry out the tests, the California National Guard planned to use a helicopter to deliver kits to the Grand Princess on Thursday morning. The onboard medical team will then collect samples, which will be flown back to shore to be analyzed at a lab in Richmond, Calif.

In a letter that was sent to current passengers who were also on the earlier trip, Princess Cruises informed them, "the CDC requires you to remain in your stateroom until you have been contacted and cleared by our medical staff."

The exact date and time for the ship's arrival was "to be determined," the company said.

The cruise line asked passengers to report any symptoms they might have had, such as a fever or a cough, that could indicate they have COVID-19. The company emailed a similar message to people who were on the earlier voyage.

After the Grand Princess completed its Mexico trip, the ship left California for a cruise to Hawaii. It's now returning from that voyage — and operator Princess Cruises canceled the ship's scheduled call in Ensenada, Mexico, to bring it off the coast near San Francisco on Thursday.

"We've requested the arrival to be delayed" to provide time for tests, Newsom said, "because we have a number of passengers and crew members that have developed symptoms on this cruise ship."

As of midday Thursday, the Grand Princess was about 100 nautical miles from the coast as it headed toward San Francisco, according to the maritime tracking site Vessel Finder. The cruise ship won't be allowed to dock until the coronavirus testing is complete, officials said.

On Thursday, San Francisco announced its first two COVID-19 cases: a man in his 90s who is hospitalized in serious condition, and a woman in her 40s who is hospitalized in fair condition. Both were tested by the state department of public health on March 4. They were likely infected through community transmission, as they have had no known contact with anyone who traveled to outbreak locations, the city says.

The Grand Princess is the second Princess Cruises ship to be identified with a potential cluster of coronavirus cases. Last month, the Diamond Princess was held in quarantine for weeks at the port in Yokohama, Japan.

Princess Cruises says it is canceling the Grand Princess' next planned Hawaii cruise, which was to depart on Saturday.

About half of the people who were on the cruise to Mexico are California residents, Newsom said. Authorities are working to contact them and urge them to monitor themselves for potential COVID-19 symptoms.

California health agencies are currently monitoring at least 9,400 people in 49 counties who were potentially exposed to the coronavirus through air travel, Newsom said.

In addition to heightening the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak, the governor's emergency declaration forbids price gouging on products that are important in fighting viruses, such as hand sanitizer.

Those extra protections will remain in effect through Sept. 4, according to the declaration – suggesting state officials believe the coronavirus could affect California for months to come. The order also waives the normal 30-day and 60-day expiration times for health and public emergencies that are declared at the local level.

The U.S. now has at least 99 domestic cases of coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday morning. That figure doesn't include the 49 cases in which Americans were repatriated to the U.S. on evacuation flights from Japan and from Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus was first detected.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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