SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The coronavirus-stricken Grand Princess, which has been circling in limbo for more than two days off the Northern California coast, will be heading to a secure dock in Oakland where the passengers will disembark and be taken to a quarantined facility, officials said Saturday night.
In a press release, Princess Cruise line officials said the deboarding process will take at least two days. Initially, officials said the ship — carrying more than 3,500 passengers and crew members from 54 countries — would arrive on Sunday, but then quickly followed up with another twist in the plan.
“CDC has just informed us that further modifications of the plan are necessary and will impact the arrival of the ship,” cruise officials said in an email. “The ship will now arrive in the Port of Oakland on Monday, time TBD.”
All passengers will be screened for the coronavirus before they are allowed to depart the ship. Officials said any passenger requiring medical treatment will be taken to local facilities.
“According to Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, following health screenings, guests who are California residents will go to a federally operated facility within California for testing and isolation, while non-Californians will be transported by the federal government to facilities in other states,” the company said. “Crew will be quarantined and treated aboard the ship.”
Michelle Heckert, who is stranded on the ship with her grandparents, has been giving social media updates on Saturday. She said the captain had announced to the relieved passengers that they would soon be allowed to leave the ship. The more than 2,000 passengers have been confirmed to their staterooms since Thursday afternoon.
“Captain has just announced agreement to dock at Oakland, with disembarkation process starting tomorrow & likely taking several days,” she tweeted. “Still working on plans for international passengers, amidst the americans.”
If the plan unfolds like it did when the passengers from the Diamond Princess were airlifted back to the United States from Japan last month, passengers will be taken to various military bases after departing the ship including Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
“I’m told that the Trump Administration has decided to quarantine some passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship (those who are currently asymptotic) at Lackland AFB in San Antonio,” Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro tweeted Saturday night. “Our city has already helped quarantine 230 people including treatment for 11 infected persons.”
Fears that the coronavirus may be present on the ship emerged when passengers on a previous voyage began being diagnosed with the illness. After one of those passengers — a 71-year-old Rocklin man became the first Californian to die of the disease — the Grand Princess was ordered to immediately return to San Francisco and cancelled the 15-day voyage to Hawaii’s final port of call in Mexico.
Meanwhile, 11 passengers from that Feb. 11-21 trip have from fallen ill with the coronavirus — two were hospitalized in Sonoma County, three others have mostly recovered in Placer County, two were home quarantined in Contra Costa County, one was being treated in Fresno, one in Santa Cruz County, one was hospitalized in Alameda County and another in Chicago.
In the wake of the death and coronavirus cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom banned the ship from making port in San Francisco or anywhere in California until anyone with flu-like symptoms aboard was tested for the illness.
On Thursday, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor and four medical staffers from the California Air National Guard were airlifted to the ship along with testing kits. They took samples from 46 passengers and crew members. Those samples were then airlifted to a California state lab in Richmond for testing.
Vice President Mike Pence announced on Friday that 19 crew members and two passengers of the 46 samples taken had tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We have developed plan which will be implemented this weekend to bring ship into a noncommercial port all passengers and crew will be tested for the coronavirus,” Pence said. “Those that need to be quarantined, will be quarantined. Those that require additional medical attention will receive it.”
“Let me assure the American public, as we did so with those returning from China and those returning from the other cruise ship (Diamond Princess in Japan), we are taking all measures necessary to see to the health of Americans and those involved in Grand Princess and, just as importantly, to protect the health of the American public and prevent the spread of the disease thru communities in this country.”
Mary Ellen Carroll, the San Francisco Director of the Department of Emergency Management, at a Thursday morning news conference, said there were several factors that needed to be considered for determining where the ship will dock.
“Many of those people (who had fallen in during the 15-day cruise) have recovered and are no longer showing flu-like symptoms,” she said. “Once we have results from the (coronavirus) tests, the CDC and the state will determine the most appropriate location for the ship to berth. That location needs to provide for the safety of the surrounding community as well as the passengers.”
“The CDC and the state are considering a number of locations including San Francisco,” she added.
People on social media pleaded with elected officials to let the ship dock. In an interview with the Associated Press, passenger Karen Dever of Moorestown, New Jersey, agreed that she should be tested for coronavirus but wants officials to let her go if her results come back negative.
“Fourteen more days on this ship, I think by the end I will need a mental health visit,” she said with a laugh. “I’m an American. I should be able to come home.”
The ship has been a looping holding pattern off shore, according to the a real time cruise tracking website. Usually, the path has been a looping course more than 100 miles off shore in international waters.
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Medical experts agree there was now a real urgency to prevent the spread to others on board.
“The ship is an enormous problem,” said Dr. Arthur Reingold, a UC Berkeley epidemiologist who used to work at the CDC. “I’m concerned that other people on the ship are infected some who may well develop symptoms over the incubation period.”
Dr. Henry “Chip” Chambers, an infectious disease specialist and UCSF professor, said it was crucial to get the ill passengers off the ship and away from the other passengers.
He points out that it will be a challenge to get all the passengers off the ship but consider what happened to the Diamond Princess in Japan: it left passengers quarantined on board for two weeks. 704 people became infected and four of them died.
“I would have trouble regarding that a resounding success,” Chambers said. He also said it depends how well the patients were isolated and how well quarantine procedures were followed. It also depends on the test results.
“My gut is it’s probably a good idea to get people off the boat,” he said.
© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press and Bay City News contributed to this report