As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread throughout the U.S., one cruise company is hoping to help more people get the care they need by some unconventional means.
Carnival Corporation — the parent company of Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and others — is reaching out to government and health officials to offer access to their cruise ships to use as floating hospitals in the midst of the pandemic.
The company announced the initiative in a press release on Thursday afternoon, stating that select cruise ships from their fleet would be made available to communities “for use as temporary hospitals to help address the escalating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare systems around the world.”
Most major cruise lines have temporarily suspended all scheduled sailings, so their ships are currently out of commission.
As the highly contagious virus continues to spread, many government and health officials have expressed worry that there may be a shortage of hospital beds available for sick patients across the country. Carnival expressed that their offer would take pressure off land-based hospitals by taking in non-coronavirus patients, therefore “expanding capacity in land-based hospitals to treat cases of COVID-19.”
According to the statement, they believe their cruise ships can easily be transformed into health care facilities because of the way they are typically built. Most of Carnival’s ships already have up to 1,000 isolated rooms with access to a high-speed internet network, so remote patient monitoring devices — like cardiac, respiratory, oxygen saturation and video monitoring — could be installed and connected for non-critical, non-coronavirus patients.
Rooms also have private bathrooms and many have balconies, meaning patients could enjoy fresh air if desired, they stated.
Carnival says their fleet would also be able to provide up to seven intensive care units per ship, and that, similar to how regular health facilities use different floors for different wards, they could use different decks to separate various medical departments.
“The temporary hospital cruise ships would be berthed at a pier near the community in need and operated by the ship’s crew, with all maritime operations, food and beverage, and cleaning services provided by crew members on the ship,” reads the statement. “Medical services would be provided by the government entity or hospital responsible for fighting the spread of COVID-19 within that community.”
They requested interested health care providers reach out to them and provided a contact to do so.
But converting cruise ships into floating hospitals may not be as simple as Carnival makes it sounds, Dr. Robert Norton, a Professor of Public Health at Auburn University who currently serve on several COVID-19 task forces, tells PEOPLE.
“The individual state rooms in a cruise ship, even though equipped with bathrooms, make nursing care far more complex,” Norton says. “The design also makes cleaning and disinfection more difficult, in that there are lots of little spaces, rather than several larger spaces.” He points to norovirus outbreaks on ships as evidence of potential flaws.
Speaking to PEOPLE about why cruise vacations are particularly dangerous amid the pandemic last week, infectious disease expert Dr. William Haseltine, noted that cruise ships, at least in their original state as passenger vessels, “are incubators. Everybody’s close together, packed in all the time. One person gets sick, a lot of them got sick. It’s a very unfavorable environment for disease transmission.”
In addition to issues with cleaning, Norton says that food delivery could also be a potential problem on a cruise ship-turned-hospital, as their kitchens are designed for passengers, not sick people.
And while open hospital beds are becoming more rare across the country, so too are health care workers, Norton says. Even if cruise ships could provide more space for the ill, he says, there may not be enough workers to tend to them.
“There is no excess local, state, federal or Department of Defense medical systems surge capacity of personnel or equipment that can be shifted to cruise ships,” he explains. “In order to put a nurse or a physician on a cruise ship, you would have to take them from an existing medical facility. That is not going to happen.”
The U.S. Navy does have a vessel called a Hospital Ship — two of which will be part of the Defense Department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon announced Wednesday — but they’re much different than a regular cruise ship, Norton says.
“Medical ships are floating hospitals,” Norton explains. “They have the staff, the equipment and the facilities to act as hospitals, spanning all ranges of patient care and even major surgery.”
Norton says he believes that the federal government is “aware of and possibly even currently evaluating” Carnival’s offer, based on recent discussions with Public Health experts, but maintains, “Given what I know, I don’t see cruise ships as a viable alternative.”
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The offer of aid is a major change in tone from the cruise industry, which came under fire for continuing to operate as normal as the virus spread. In early March, Carnival was offering passengers $250 in onboard credit not to cancel their reservations. Leaked emails reportedly revealed that Norwegian Cruise line managers were pressuring salespeople to lie to customers about the dangers of coronavirus.
On March 9, the U.S. State Department issued a warning that Americans “should not travel by cruise ship” at this time, noting that the “cruise ship environment” can foster an “increased risk of infection.” The Centers for Disease Control issued a similar statement.
As of Thursday afternoon, there are now at least 12,392 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, as testing becomes more readily available. 195 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus-related illness, an increase of at least 40 over the last 24 hours.
Worldwide, there are now 246,275 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 10,038 deaths.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.