Nearly half of the passengers initially tested aboard a cruise ship being held in waters off San Francisco have been infected by the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said late Friday.
Tests for 21 of the 46 people tested on Thursday came back positive, raising fears that the virus could be spreading widely among the more than 3,500 passengers aboard the Grand Princess. Pence said those infected include 19 crew members and two passengers.
The vice president said authorities plan to bring the cruise ship to a “non-commercial port” over the weekend, where all passengers and crew will be tested for the disease and quarantined as necessary.
The public health disaster on the ship echoed a similar crisis from last month, when 700 people aboard another Princess Cruises ship, the Diamond Princess, became infected with the coronavirus while the ship was quarantined for weeks off Yokohama harbor in Japan.
U.S. officials on Friday, however, made clear they have no intention of keeping the Grand Princess at sea and in limbo for nearly that long.
Pence’s announcement at the White House seemed at odds with the wishes of President Donald Trump, who was asked during a visit Friday afternoon at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta whether a decision had been made on what to do with the people aboard the Grand Princess.
“That’s a very good question,” Trump replied, saying he would prefer to keep the passengers on the ship for the moment.
“I don’t need to have the [infection] numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault, and wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship,” he said. “I’d rather have the people stay on, personally.”
But public health experts say cruise ships are particularly bad places during outbreaks because of the combination of close quarters and staff members without the needed training and resources.
“This is probably the least ideal environment to try to quarantine and main proper infection prevention measures,” said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist with Honor Health, a Phoenix hospital system. “Not the best place to be doing it. I think we need to start learning from those lessons.”
As they spent Friday waiting to receive tests results and any news about where government officials planned to send the ship and its 3,533 passengers – 2,422 guests and 1,111 crew representing 54 nationalities – those on the Grand Princess found themselves at turns frustrated, bored and apprehensive.
Passengers have remained confined to their rooms since Thursday and are acutely aware of what had happened to the Diamond Princess.
“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Stuart Freedman, a retired high school math teacher who boarded the ship on Feb. 21, said in a phone interview. Like other passengers, the 61-year-old from Elk Grove, California, has been confined to his room. “We just hope they don’t do the Diamond Princess thing where they keep us in this Petri dish for days and days.”
For the most part, Freedman said, people mostly seem patient. He said the ship’s operators and crew appear to be trying to accommodate passengers, opening up free Internet access and handing out $300 dollar credits for the lost travel days.
Passengers also were given sheets asking for their dinner choices. And Princess Cruises said in a statement Friday that workers would distribute forms allowing guests to request prescription refills.
“People are kind of collegial in a situation like this,” Freedman said. “They’re a little more apt to communicate with each other and share their pain. Some people were frustrated. Very few people, I think, are angry. … Most people are dealing with it the best they can.”
Still, while he sat in his room, Freedman was mostly sanguine about what might lie ahead.
“If we get it, hopefully we’re going to survive it,” he said. “If not, you’ve got to die of something. That’s my attitude.”
As the slow-moving crisis unfolded off California’s coast Friday afternoon with no end in sight, the virus also continued its spread around the nation, churning up worry and uncertainty with each new place it touched.
Pennsylvania and Kentucky announced their first two cases of presumptive coronavirus, increasing the number of states affected by the outbreak to 21.
New York’s caseload doubled again on Friday to 44, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced. Most of the state’s cases have been linked to a New Rochelle attorney who worked in Manhattan and was diagnosed early this week.
“We have expected the number of positive cases to go up as we test,” Cuomo tweeted Friday afternoon.
The state will mandate quarantines for anyone who has come in close contact with an infected person — defined as having been within 6 feet. Across the state, 4,000 people have isolated themselves at home, officials said. About 2,700 of those were in New York City and 1,000 in Westchester county. Forty-four individuals were mandated to be quarantined by the state health department.
Meanwhile, government officials evacuated 15 residents to local hospitals overnight from the nursing facility in a Seattle suburb that, to this point, has been the site hardest hit by the virus in the United States.
The transfer comes as local officials pushed back against complaints from relatives of residents at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, who claimed they have received little information or guidance from government officials in the aftermath of the coronavirus spread. At least nine residents have died since the virus was first discovered at the facility.
Local officials say Life Care needs to be the point of contact for families, and they complained about poor communications from the company’s corporate managers.
“We have to rely on Life Care to be the intermediary in communicating with those folks,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said during a news conference Friday morning. “And we’ve had some challenges with Life Care, and I’m starting to lose my patience.”
Life Care Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The 15 residents of the nursing facility who were transferred overnight have been “dispersed” to various hospitals in the region, said Patty Hayes, director for public health for Seattle and King County. She said 69 people remain at the Center.
The University of Washington on Friday said it plans to shutter classrooms through the end of the winter term for more than 57,000 enrolled students as the coronavirus wreaks havoc in the Seattle area. University officials will close classrooms through March 20 at campuses in Seattle, Tacoma and Bothell, the university said, forcing students to study remotely.
Back in Washington, President Trump on Friday morning signed legislation providing $8.3 billion in emergency spending to combat the coronavirus outbreak, enacting into law a measure that was passed swiftly and with broad bipartisan support.
Trump, who later in the day visited CDC headquarters in Atlanta, signed the bill shortly before departing the White House for a trip to Tennessee in the aftermath of tornadoes this week that left two dozen people dead.
“We’ve signed the $8.3 billion,” he told reporters. “I asked for two and a half, and I got 8.3, and I’ll take it.”
Globally, confirmed cases of the coronavirus have now eclipsed 100,000, according to a tally maintained by Johns Hopkins University. (The World Health Organization puts the number closer to 98,000). The toll showed no signs of slowing at week’s end.
Friday prayers were disrupted across the Middle East. Iran, site of the largest outbreak in the region, shuttered almost 60,000 mosques, as officials announced 1,234 new cases of the infection.
Peru and Columbia confirmed their first cases of the coronavirus Friday, while South Korea confirmed an additional 518 cases Friday. Lebanon’s health minister said Friday that the country can no longer contain the spread of coronavirus, after the government reported new cases of unknown origin and raised the number of infections to 22.
New cases also surfaced across Europe, a day after a top British medical official suggested that it is increasingly unlikely that the outbreak can be contained.
Germany reported more than 180 new coronavirus cases. Russia announced it had detected six new cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours, doubling its total since the outbreak started. France confirmed more than 150 new cases and two new deaths.
President Emmanuel Macron urged French citizens to stop visiting the elderly, the latest directive to contain the spread of coronavirus in France.
“Right now, our top priority is to protect the most vulnerable against the virus,” Macron said Friday, visiting a Paris nursing home, adding, “We must avoid visiting our elders as much as possible.”
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The Washington Post’s Hannah Sampson, Lenny Bernstein, Amy Goldstein, Lena H. Sun, Jay Greene, Siobhán O’Grady, Mark Berman, Alex Horton, William Booth, Reis Thebault, Rick Noack, Scott Wilson, McAuley and Ben Guarino contributed to this report.