Coronavirus: Quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship to let some passengers off early; 44 new cases confirmed

Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been under a 14-day quarantine off the coast of Japan after multiple passengers were diagnosed with coronavirus in early February, will let some of its passengers off the ship early.

The cruise line also confirmed 44 new cases Thursday, bringing the total number of people on the ship who have fallen ill with the virus to at least 218, with at least 20 of Americans in that group.

While all Diamond Princess guests are still allowed to remain on board through the end of the Feb. 19 quarantine period, Japanese health officials plan to start a voluntary process to let passengers off the ship.

It will happen in phases. Older adults with pre-existing health conditions and more of the "most medically vulnerable guests" will be let off first, according to an update from the cruise line, provided by Negin Kamali, director of public relations.

Guests will be tested for coronavirus prior to disembarking: Those who test positive will be transported to a local hospital, while those who test negative will be allowed to leave and head to a quarantine housing facility.

Kamali also previously said that the cruise line would follow "guidance from the Japan Ministry of Health on plans for disembarkation protocols to provide medical care for these new cases."

In addition to providing meals, laundry service, internet and on-demand entertainment, the cruise line has arranged for the delivery of more than 2,000 prescription medications, Rai Caluori, Princess Cruises' executive vice president of fleet operations, announced in a Facebook video Tuesday.

"One of our highest priorities has been to provide guests and crew with their prescription medications," Caluori added. "Seven new pharmacists have been assisting in the assorting, delivery and distribution to guests."

All guests will receive a full refund for the cruise, including airfare, hotel, ground transportation, pre-paid shore excursions, gratuities and other items. Princess Cruises will also provide guests with a future cruise credit equal to the cost of their current trip, which had been scheduled to end on Feb. 4 before it was placed under an additional two-week quarantine.

Though all gratuities will also be refunded to guests, Princess Cruises said that the company will make sure crew members receive their designated gratuities for their work, plus paid time off following the quarantine.

Holland America ship finally in port after days in limbo

Early Thursday morning, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, confirmed via tweet that Holland America's MS Westerdam had docked with authorization from the kingdom. A team from the Embassy was dispatched to the port to assist the U.S. citizens on board.

It's been an emotional ride for guests on board. When the news came that the ship was accepted by Cambodia, there was some relief and some skepticism.

While passenger Stephen Hansen expressed hope Wednesday that the fourth port would indeed be the charm, he told USA TODAY, "We have been disappointed before by other countries."

However, before the passengers could disembark, there was red tape to clear.

"Inspection and clearance procedures are proceeding," Holland America public relations director Erik Elvejord told USA TODAY. "Given the number of organizations involved in supporting today’s complex operations, it is taking time."

Holland America's MS Westerdam arrives at the port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia on Thursday, Feb. 13. The ship was turned away from three other disembarkation ports in Japan, Guam and Thailand despite not having any cases of coronavirus on board.
Holland America's MS Westerdam arrives at the port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia on Thursday, Feb. 13. The ship was turned away from three other disembarkation ports in Japan, Guam and Thailand despite not having any cases of coronavirus on board.

Elvejord noted that due to the delays, the first round of charter flights to Phnom Penh would not happen Thursday but that aircraft had been secured for Friday.

"We are grateful to everyone here in Cambodia who are helping and welcoming us today," he concluded.

Late Wednesday, early Thursday local time, the Westerdam arrived in Cambodia and local officials boarded the ship, according to Holland America.

Though it was not yet clear when the ship's passengers would be allowed to disembark, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, said a team had arrived at the port to assist the U.S. citizens aboard.

The ship will remain in port at Sihanoukville for several days post-disembarkation. After transferring to Phnom Penh via charter flight, passengers will catch flights home, which have been arranged and paid for by Holland America. All passengers will also receive a full refund and a future cruise credit.

The Westerdam departed Hong Kong Feb. 1 and originally was scheduled to disembark in Shanghai on Saturday before coronavirus gripped mainland China and forced itinerary changes. It was turned away from multiple other disembarkation points, despite the cruise line's assertion that there are no known cases among the ship's 1,455 passengers and 802 crew.

First, it moved to Yokohama, Japan, only for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to bar the vessel from entering his country. Next, Guam, a U.S. territory, turned it away, rejecting a request from the State Department to let the ship in.

And on Tuesday – one day after Holland America announced it had gotten permission for the ship to disembark at Bangkok's Laem Chabang port – Thailand's public health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, said he issued orders denying the ship permission to disembark there.

The Philippines also barred the ship from making a scheduled port call earlier in the sailing.

Number of cases spikes 33% overnight

The number of coronavirus cases spiked 33% overnight Wednesday, leaping from 45,210 from 60,349 as of 9 a.m. EST on Thursday.

The spikes overseas are at least partly due to new counting standards implemented by China, which reported Wednesday that it is tallying infections differently. The nation previously only counted a coronavirus case as confirmed when a person tested positive for the virus, but that thinking has been revised, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday night.

Your guide to coronavirus: Everything you need to know about Covid-19

The new numbers of deaths push the coronavirus well past that of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, officials said. But the mortality rate – a statistic that measures the deadliness of the virus on infected persons – of SARS is still significantly higher than coronavirus. The latest figures show that coronavirus has a mortality rate of 2.3%, compared to nearly 9.6% for SARS.

As was the case with SARS, the vast majority of coronavirus cases (59,822) and deaths (1,367) are in mainland China.

The government is no longer requiring a positive test, the news agency said, a decision made partly because testing kits are in short supply. New cases are now being confirmed if a person is simply diagnosed by a doctor or other health professional; China says the new standard will help treat people more quickly once they exhibit symptoms of the virus, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.

Contributing: Ken Alltucker, Bill Keveney, Jayme Deerwester, Grace Hauck, Cydney Henderson, Hannah Yasharoff, USA TODAY, Frank Witsil, The Detroit Free Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Diamond Princess cruise ship to let some passengers off