Cruise ships are becoming microcosms of flimsy coronavirus responses

The Grand Princess is contending with Covid-19 infections.
The Grand Princess is contending with Covid-19 infections.
Image: California National Guard via AP
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On Friday evening, US vice president Mike Pence announced that 21 of the 3,500 people aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship being held off the California coast had tested positive for the novel coronavirus—19 crew members and two guests of the approximately 45 total who were tested. Today, Princess public relations director Negin Kamali confirmed to USA Today that the ship would dock in the port of Oakland, California tomorrow. Kamali said those requiring “acute medical treatment and hospitalization” would disembark first, and that it was “unclear” whether others would be allowed to leave as well.

USA Today also obtained a written statement from Kamali: “California residents will go to a federally operated facility within California for testing and isolation, while non-Californians will be transported by the federal government to facilities in other states. Crew will be quarantined and treated aboard the ship.”

This was far more clarity than Ben Carson, the US secretary of housing and urban development, provided on ABC News today, when he told host George Stephanopoulos he didn’t “want to preview the plan [for the passengers] right now…particularly when it hasn’t been fully formulated.” As recently as Thursday, a Department of Homeland Security official told a Senate committee the US lacked facilities to quarantine large numbers of passengers.

This calamity comes after a similar scenario involving another Princess cruise, the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan last month. That cruise became the largest cluster of infections outside of China—more than 700 infections and eight deaths—many of which, it seems, might have been avoided had corporate heads and government officials mounted a more timely and serious response.

But US agencies didn’t agree on the best way to handle the 328 Americans—which ultimately included 14 who tested positive for the virus—who had been quarantined on the ship. The State Department wanted to repatriate the passengers; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against it. The State Department won, and it turned out that infected American passengers were sent on buses to the airport before their test results were known.

Trump, a noted germaphobe (who nonetheless continues to shake hands), was furious at the result, and he’s not likely to be happy about whatever transpires in California, either. One of his chief concerns, apparently, is how letting people off the ship would up the count of Covid-19 cases on US soil—and how that might reflect upon his administration.

“I like the numbers being where they are,” he said on Friday. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”