Sick crew keeps cruise ship running, risking spread of virus
Crew members of a Holland America Line cruise ship that’s seen two confirmed cases of coronavirus on board say they aren’t being tested for the pathogen or adequately quarantined if they get sick.
A shortage of staff on the Zaandam, which was barred from docking in Chile and Panama, has meant workers with fever and other coronavirus symptoms are not being isolated for the 14 days many experts recommend, according to family members and social media messages from crew seen by Bloomberg.
The relatives and employees asked not to be identified because they said Holland America has prohibited crew from speaking to the media. Two passengers on the Zaandam were confirmed to be infected with Covid-19, and four “older” guests died, the company said on March 27.
Some crew reported being cleared by the ship’s doctor to return to work 24 hours after their fever abated, and most crew members who came down with coronavirus symptoms have not been tested for Covid-19. Some sick staff have been working in roles related to dining, according to family members and social media posts.
Holland America, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., said in a statement to Bloomberg that “all crew who have any respiratory illness, including simple colds, are managed as potential Covid-19 cases in an abundance of caution and immediately isolated and their close contacts are quarantined.”
Individual testing wouldn’t change management of the cases, it said. The company said it follows Centers for Disease Control guidelines for in-home quarantines that don’t end until three days have passed without fever and seven days have passed since symptoms began.
The accounts of crew and family members paint a troubling picture of the situation on board the vessel, which transferred passengers deemed healthy to a sister ship over the weekend. Sick crew risk fueling the outbreak on board, as experts say they did on two other cruise ships owned by Carnival that were stricken with the virus this year.
The global cruise industry has been hobbled by the pandemic, with vessels from the U.S. to Australia seeing outbreaks, and passengers stranded as countries refused to allow ships to dock.
“Everybody with symptoms should be regarded as infected until proven otherwise, regardless of being crew or passengers,” said Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease professor at Kobe University who created international headlines by criticizing Japan’s handling of the quarantine of the Diamond Princess. More than 700 were infected and nine died on that ship.
“I would isolate them for at least 14 days and until they become asymptomatic,” he said. “I may add even more because they still may carry virus.”
The CDC recommends that passengers returning from cruises stay home for 14 days and practice social distancing because of the risk of infection.
Crew members on the two earlier Princess ships that had Covid-19 outbreaks hastened the spread of the disease to passengers, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies released earlier this month.
Zaandam and the sister ship, Rotterdam, passed through the Panama Canal Monday and were heading to Florida. The cruise line was given permission to transit through the waterway on humanitarian grounds after authorities initially refused it.
The Rotterdam arrived off the coast of Panama without passengers March 26. In addition to taking guests from the virus-stricken ship, it delivered Covid-19 test kits. A flu-like outbreak has spread quickly through the Zaandam: 73 guests and 116 crew members have reported influenza-like symptoms, according to the company. That’s a 37% spike from numbers released three days ago.
Crew and their family members said they feared many workers may be infected with the deadly pathogen. A few who experienced fever and coughs or sore throats had asked the ship’s doctors to get tested and were refused, according to their relatives.
Some crew members who worked in the kitchen or in roles related to dining were cleared by ship doctors to report back to work in as little as 24 hours after a fever, according to relatives and social media posts.
Crew in quarantine also complained about missed meals or insufficient food because of the shortage of workers. A few meals included just pieces of bread, said relatives.
In a video address to passengers on Sunday, Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford said the ship transfer of passengers was conducted to reduce the workload for crew and have open cabins to isolate people.
“Our first and primary goal is to manage and protect the safety, health and security of all of you,” Ashford said. “I apologize for the fact that this has turned out to not be the exact vacation you signed up for. It’s turned out to be a safety and humanitarian effort.”
Both ships, carrying a total of about 2,500 guests and crew, will be traveling together and are bound for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said the company. The Zaandam’s voyage began at Buenos Aires on March 7, on a South America cruise that was originally scheduled to end at San Antonio, Chile, on March 21. Just a day after it departed, the U.S. State Department cautioned consumers against getting on cruises, an advisory that was followed by other governments.
Chile wouldn’t allow the vessel to dock and soon all ports were closed off to the Zaandam. The second leg of its original voyage had the ship disembarking passengers in Fort Lauderdale.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in an interview with Fox News, said he’s opposed to having Holland America passengers get off in south Florida and doesn’t want those who aren’t residents of the state “dumped” there.
Meanwhile, Dean Trantalis, the mayor of Fort Lauderdale, called for strict protocols.
“The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must create a plan to protect our community,” Trantalis wrote in a tweet. “We cannot afford any further risk.”