A 71-year-old Placer County man who fell ill with coronavirus on a Princess Cruises ship died Wednesday, becoming the 11th fatality in the United States and the first in California, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency to ramp up efforts to curtail rapid spread of the infectious disease.

Thousands of passengers, including a Sonoma County resident still hospitalized in Santa Rosa with the virus, disembarked from the Grand Princess ship Feb. 21, returning home from a 10-day cruise from San Francisco to Mexico to places across the state, the country and perhaps the globe. Among them, 78 were Sonoma County residents and 55 from Marin County.

Sonoma County public health officials said they will contact the 78 local cruise passengers — who include 25 who shared a shuttle bus with the local resident stricken with infectious disease from Port of San Francisco to Sonoma County — as the specter of the disease grows, driving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to loosen its guidelines for who can be tested for the virus.

Newsom said at a news conference Wednesday in Sacramento there were 53 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in California. That’s the most of any state and almost third of the 152 people infected nationwide as of Wednesday night, according to state and federal health officials.

“The first death related to COVID-19” in California, Newsom said, “obviously marks a profound moment in our state and, importantly, a profound moment for the family members that lost a loved one.”

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The Grand Princess ship continued on from San Francisco, cruising to Hawaii with thousands more passengers and crew members aboard, including 62 people who also were on the Mexico trip. Some people still aboard had developed flu-like symptoms and have been told to stay in their cabins.

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California delayed the ship’s return to its port in San Francisco, Wednesday ordering the Grand Princess to wait off the coast while public health officials prepare to get aboard with at least 200 test kits for the virus, Newsom said. They will first evaluate staff and passengers with influenza symptoms and perhaps others. The governor said they aim to get test results within hours.

Public health authorities have acquired the ship’s passenger list and are providing that data to public health departments across the state to track down the Californians aboard, about half of the 2,500 passengers, Newsom said. The CDC is contacting passengers outside of the state.

So far, three people from the Grand Princess February voyage to Mexico have tested positive for the virus, including the local resident being treated at an unknown Santa Rosa hospital. Two of the Marin County passengers have reported symptoms and are being evaluated as possible coronavirus cases, Marin County Public Health Officer Matt Willis said.

More test results of the ship’s passengers remain outstanding, said Christopher Braden, an epidemiologist at CDC and deputy director of the agency’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.

Princess Cruises reported that one crew member who had worked on the Feb. 11 voyage from San Francisco had developed influenza-like symptoms and was taken off the ship in Hawaii but had tested negative for coronavirus.

The incubation period for the coronavirus is still considered to last 14 days, making Friday an important threshold for passengers of the February voyage, said Braden, who spoke alongside Newsom at the news conference about the emergency proclamation.

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“Obviously, this is a situation we keep a close eye on,” Braden said.

California Public Health Officer Sonia Angell tried to tamp down the public’s escalating fears of coronavirus spreading by reassuring the risk to the general public remains low, a tougher task by the day since the virus which originated in China in January has infected 95,000 people in at least 80 countries. Those who contract the infectious disease generally recover with mild symptoms, if they do not have underlying health conditions or are otherwise vulnerable because of their age, she said.

The man who died in Placer County had underlying health issues, according to the county’s public health officer.

Sonoma County public health officials Wednesday afternoon received the list of 78 local residents who were passengers of the Grand Princess.

Among them are the group who shared the shuttle here from San Francisco. Rohish Lal, a county public health spokesman, declined to name the shuttle service and said county officials are “working with the shuttle company and will contact those directly on the shuttle in question.”

The first case of coronavirus linked to the ship is a Sonoma County resident who remains in stable condition at a Santa Rosa hospital, Lal said.

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Local public health officials announced Monday the person had been a passenger on the Grand Princess ship, 10 days after passengers returned from Mexico and disembarked in San Francisco.

Some of those passengers have decried a lack of response from public health officials.

Santa Rosa resident Vicki Eschellbach was aboard the Grand Princess and traveled among at least 50 people who returned to Sonoma County on shuttles from the port provided by the Sonoma County Airport Express. Calls to the transportation company weren’t returned Wednesday.

Eschellebach, 64, said she and her husband remain in good health, but they are concerned they may be carriers of the virus since the man seated behind them on the buss had a terrible cough.

“This gentleman behind us said don’t get too close, he was coughing and coughing the whole time,” Eschellebach said. “I thought if we just keep our mouths shut we’ll get home safe and sound.”

Eschellbach said she called her doctor as soon as she learned about coronavirus cases linked to her cruise ship and was advised to stay home. She said she’s been home for more than a week and out in the community. She works as a flight attendant and is scheduled to work next week.

“Do I just go on with life and pretend I’m fine? I don’t feel bad, but I’m concerned about making somebody else sick,” Eschellbach said.

©2020 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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