As Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers begin to disembark after a 14-day coronavirus quarantine in Japan, and MS Westerdam passengers have been cleared to depart Cambodia after a passenger who had been on the ship tested positive for the virus, questions remain about travel, especially cruising, during the coronavirus outbreak.
As of Tuesday, 542 cases of the virus had been identified among the 3,711 quarantined passengers and crew of Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess, making the ship the site of the most infections outside of China.
USA TODAY reporters covering coronavirus, including travel reporters Morgan Hines and Curtis Tate, took to Reddit Tuesday to answer some questions. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
What are some precautions we can take while traveling to Asian countries? Are people overreacting by canceling preplanned trips?
One thing to remember is that you may not be covered by travel insurance if you decide to cancel because of the outbreak. You’ll have to pay extra for cancel-for-any-reason coverage. That costs 40-50% more, and it will cover about 75% of your expenses.
I’ve spoken with frequent cruisers and cruise planners and it all seems to be up in the air in terms of the future. Some are on the fence about taking future cruises and some are saying you can’t let the fear of something like this to stop you from keeping your plans.
As for precautions for any travel, since there is no vaccine for coronavirus currently, the CDC recommends common heath practices for prevention, including washing hands, sanitizing frequently touched objects and avoiding people who are sick.
Do you have practical advice for travelers on how to best care for themselves if they will be near impacted areas?
So far, the largest number of cases are concentrated in China. There are scattered cases around East and Southeast Asia, but the situation is evolving. The best option would be to delay travel until the outbreak subsides. If you do go near affected areas, wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer. Masks are mainly effective for those who already have the virus.
Isn’t it likely that more passengers on the Diamond Princess are going to continue to test positive with each batch of new testing?
Princess Cruises said during the Diamond Princess quarantine that it was expected to see the level of cases rise throughout the quarantine.
A passenger sent me a letter from Princess Cruises they received ahead of the end of the quarantine.
According to the letter, all those passengers that are scheduled to begin disembarking Wednesday will have been tested. Those that test positive will not be allowed to disembark, instead they will be brought to on-shore treatment facilities. The Japanese Ministry of Health told Princess Cruises that those who test negative will receive a document from Yokohama Quarantine Station, which will permit them to disembark. That will include their final test results.
Guests can take charter flights or commercial flights back, depending on what their country offers. Princess Cruises has advised the passengers to get in touch with their embassies and to pay close attention to what they have to say.
As for after guests and crew disembark the ship, future testing has not been announced. However, when a case emerged after passengers from Holland America’s MS Westerdam disembarked, the cruise line paired up with government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and agencies in Malaysia (where the passenger tested positive) and Cambodia (where the ship docked) as they moved forward. They have taken steps to test all those who were on board in the area still and are having local health officials reach out to those passengers that already made it home.
How many Westerdam passengers are still stuck in Cambodia? What was the Cambodian government response?
The situation is very fluid and tests are being conducted on all passengers staying in hotels and some are still on board. On Wednesday, the cruise line reported that the 781 passengers still in Cambodia tested negative for the virus, marking the completion of guest testing; 747 crew members remain on board while testing is completed.
As for the government’s response, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to let the Westerdam dock after it was turned away from multiple ports. Prior to allowing the ship to dock, he had downplayed threats of the virus.
What is being done about the Westerdam passengers? Are they being tracked and asked to quarantine?
The passengers are not being quarantined in Cambodia. I spoke with a passenger still on board the MS Westerdam and another who had been on the ship and was in a hotel. It was recommended they stay in their state room or hotel room, but it was not a quarantine.
Passengers who left the Westerdam before the news broke about the coronavirus case will be contacted by their local health department upon arrival home and will be provided with additional info.
On Wednesday, after 781 passengers were confirmed tested negative for coronavirus, they began to head home. Several hundred had already begun the journey and had all been cleared by the Cambodian Health Ministry. Each has a letter clearing them to travel.
What will the cruise industry be doing to ensure their clients are safe from this (and other) viruses?
The situation is unprecedented for the cruise industry. We chatted with a cruise historian about coronavirus, and they told us that because the cruise industry has such a presence in the outbreak area that this is different than past illnesses such as SARS and bird flu, though those are the most comparable examples he could give.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has issued some precautions and increased screening measures for all their member ships, which make up about 90% of ocean-going cruises. Some specific lines have added other measures as well. F
Since this is an evolving situation, those precautions are subject to change, too – CLIA made that clear when issuing those measures.
Passengers that contracted coronavirus on Diamond Princess did disembark to receive treatment and further evaluation if they tested positive, which a doctor told us was a good measure to take. However, some officials have said that the quarantine failed and didn’t stop transmission, even though it wasn’t an unreasonable plan to implement.
Quarantines, isolation and lockdowns:‘There is no zero risk in the world’