Why Cruise Ship Coronavirus Quarantine Is the Worst Process Imaginable

Thinking sheltering in place at home is tough? Try it on a cruise ship. Some of the first response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak centered around the world’s waters. Ships ordered into quarantine off the coasts of seaports were some of the first global measures taken in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It has obviously since grown into a global pandemic. The measures centered around cargo ships with dozens of crew members and cruise ships with thousands of passengers. Restricted to offshore waters or anchorages, they both had to wait out the virus. Authorities either isolated those infected to their cabins or evacuated the critically ill to higher levels of medical care. The most important aspect was preventing the spread to others aboard.

Cargo and Cruise Ship Coronavirus Quarantine

Foreign ships arriving at U.S. ports actually begin their entry 96 hours before appearing on the horizon; there, they must provide an advanced notice to the U.S. Coast Guard declaring their intentions, a roster of crew and passengers, and a manifest of any cargo. Coast Guard intelligence officers use this lead time to screen the vessel for any security threats that might warrant an at sea boarding. When necessary, they take action and bar the vessel and her crew from entry into the port.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) further requires arriving ships to immediately report any death or illness. They use that information to evaluate those aboard for any signs, symptoms, or travel history consistent with a communicable disease. The CDC maintains 20 quarantine stations nationwide; 15 of those are at major seaports where they have designated anchorages to hold vessels offshore. When notified of a crew member or passenger with a suspected communicable illness, the CDC may order the ship into quarantine. There, it’s required to remain at sea with its movements restricted. Authorities then wait to see if anyone else aboard becomes sick.

The Process

Throughout the quarantine the CDC works to definitively confirm the presence of the illness. It also provides any needed medical treatment and support to sustain life. Officers of the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection are responsible for enforcement of the quarantine. In the event a quarantine order, both agencies may be called upon to enforce a security zone around a suspect ship held at sea, or to guard the pier it is moored at, to prevent the departure of all aboard until the order is lifted. Those found in violation of the order—whether passengers and crew attempting to depart the ship or outside parties attempting to get onboard—are subject to federal civil and criminal penalties ranging from fines to arrest.

Because it is a respiratory illness, the confined nature of a ship makes the spread of a COVID-19 worse. There, people come into frequent close contact with one another. They also come in contact with contaminated surfaces due to the limited amount of space on deck. Visits to multiple ports of call during a voyage only expand the risk the virus will spread. A single sailing with a confirmed case of the virus exposes the thousands of passengers aboard. They, in turn, may expose the populations of those locations where they go ashore.

No Sail Order

Concerns over the spread of the virus in these environments is so great that in late March the CDC issued a “No Sail Order” to all cruise ships with a capacity of 250 people or more. It bars them from commencing or continuing to operate without approval of both the Coast Guard and the CDC.

The actions of the CDC were prudent, as only days prior officials in California reported the death of a passenger with a confirmed case of COVID-19 who had been aboard the cruise ship Grand Princess. The CDC soon associated a total of 22 cases with the ship. Within days, the number onboard with symptoms exceeded 70. With more than 3,500 passengers total, the CDC initially directed the ship to remain at sea and loiter in a position more than 20 miles from the California coastline. There, the CDC delivered tests for the virus via helicopter.

The ship then moored in Oakland, Calif., where the CDC removed more than half the passengers and transported them to military bases for a 14-day quarantine ashore. Those passengers who remained on board then sailed to a remote pier in Los Angeles. They spent the remainder of the quarantine period there. It’s also where the CDC decontaminates the ship.

As COVID-19 continues to spread globally, action by the CDC and the Coast Guard to restrict the movement of ships will continue. To reduce the spread, the CDC recommends ship crews and passengers postpone travel plans when possible. If already aboard, use respiratory, cough, and hand hygiene. If anyone develops a fever, begins to feel feverish, or develops other signs or symptoms of sickness, they should self-isolate and inform the ship’s medical officer.

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