Death toll rises as Princess tries to clear cruise ship experiencing coronavirus outbreak

Apr 6, 2020

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Another passenger on the coronavirus-stricken Coral Princess died over the weekend after waiting hours for a hospital bed in Miami.

The family of Wilson Maa, 71, of the San Francisco area said he died late Saturday from complications related to COVID-19 shortly after being taken from the Princess Cruises ship to a local hospital. Two other passengers had died on board the vessel on Friday.

Coral Princess has been docked in Miami since Saturday morning after spending weeks at sea looking for a port that would take it in. The ship was sailing in South America in early March when Princess and other cruise lines suspended operations due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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In addition to Maa, at least a dozen more critically ill passengers from the ship were taken to Miami-area hospitals over the weekend. Some passengers without symptoms also were allowed to leave.

The disembarkation of the vessel has been slowed by a new directive issued Saturday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC said cruise lines no longer could use commercial airline flights or other forms of public transportation to transport passengers home from ships. Instead, the agency said lines must charter private aircraft or use other private transportation methods such as private cars to get passengers home.

The directive applies to all travelers arriving in the U.S. via a cruise ship, not just those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

Princess Cruises on Sunday said it was able to schedule chartered flights to California, Australia and the U.K. to get some of the 1,020 passengers on the ship home.

The line hasn’t said how many passengers were able to leave on the flights, but British First Secretary of State Dominic Raab said Monday in a tweet that 350 British nationals from the ship had been repatriated via the U.K. charter flight.

“Princess Cruises continues to work tirelessly to adjust the repatriation plan [for Coral Princess passengers] to meet the new CDC requirements,” the line said Sunday in a statement. “This will unfortunately result in further delays in disembarkation and onward travel for many guests as we work through this complex, challenging and unfortunate situation.”

Princess said all passengers on the ship are being screened as directed by the CDC before disembarking the vessel. During disembarkation, and until they reach their homes, guests are required to wear a mask and practice social distancing measures.

The line also said any passengers still showing symptoms of respiratory illness, or those who are still recovering from such an illness, will remain on board until medically cleared by the ship’s doctors. The ship’s 878 crew members also will remain on board.

The death of a passenger on Saturday after the ship arrived in Miami drew criticism from one of the Miami area’s congressional representatives, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. In a tweet, she called the situation “devastating and exasperating.”

The new CDC directive governing cruise ships could have profound implications for the cruise industry, assuming it remains in effect when the industry begins restarting operations.

A ban on cruisers using commercial aircraft to return home after voyages would effectively limit access to cruises to those who live within driving distance of ports.

The directive comes after several lines allowed passengers from cruise ships experiencing coronavirus outbreaks to travel home on commercial flights without being tested for the illness. In Australia, a single Princess ship, Ruby Princess, is being blamed for more than 10% of all coronavirus cases in the country. Local police over the weekend announced a criminal inquiry.

A spokesperson for Carnival Corp., the parent company of Princess Cruises, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the new CDC directive.

“Cruise ships are often settings for outbreaks of infectious diseases because of the semi-enclosed environment and contact between travelers from many countries,” the CDC said Friday while announcing the new directive. “Outbreaks of COVID-19 on cruise ships pose a risk for rapid spread of disease beyond the voyage. Aggressive efforts are required to contain spread.”

Coral Princess was just one of more than a dozen cruise ships that were stuck at sea in recent weeks as countries around the world closed their borders.

Related: Cruise ships could be put in storage for months due to coronavirus 

Its arrival in Florida came just two days after a Holland America ship that had been in a similar situation, the Zaandam, arrived at Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades. Like Coral Princess, Zaandam had experienced an onboard outbreak of the new coronavirus as it searched for a port. Four Zaandam passengers died as the vessel spent weeks at sea. Holland America has said two of the dead passengers tested positive for COVID-19.

The current sailing of Coral Princess began March 5 in San Antonio, Chile (the port for Santiago) and had been scheduled to end March 19 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Princess Cruises announced a worldwide halt to operations on March 12, just a week after the trip began.

“Coral Princess remained in service longer than previously expected, until arriving at the Port of Miami, due to a series of port closures, airline cancellations and other actions taken, which impacted the onward travel home of the guests and crew onboard,” the line said.

With the Coral Princess arrival in Miami, only one of Princess’s 18 vessels remain at sea: The 688-passenger Pacific Princess. The ship is on its way from the South Pacific to Los Angeles.

Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images 

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