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On Grand Princess, confusion, missteps reigned as coronavirus spread, passengers say

The Grand Princess, pictured in a file image, is being held offshore near San Francisco due to coronavirus concerns on board.

ROBERT CROSS, CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

By ANITA CHABRIA | The Los Angeles Times | Published: March 5, 2020

LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — A cruise line implicated in California’s latest coronavirus outbreak is coming under criticism from its own passengers for health screening lapses, and some also fault medical authorities for not taking their reported symptoms seriously after they left the ship.

Passengers interviewed by the Los Angeles Times said the company, Princess Cruises, didn’t follow adequate health screening protocols and withheld information about the risks they faced, even as the ship’s condition became international news.

A 75-year-old California man died Wednesday, becoming the state’s first COVID-19 fatality. On Thursday, police in Santa Clara County announced the death of a second Californian who had been on the same cruise as the first victim and probably died from the coronavirus.

“What annoys me is their press release says they do all these procedures for the safety of their customers, right?” asked Ter Soloman, a passenger on a recent voyage of the Grand Princess from San Francisco to Mexico. “There is no health screening other than signing a little piece of paper.”

The ship was off the coast of California on Thursday, and passengers had been asked to remain in their cabins with all public activities canceled, according to passengers on the ship and Princess Cruises. Test kits to check fewer than 100 passengers and crew for the virus were delivered hours earlier via helicopter.

Company spokeswoman Negin Kamali said they had no information on when results might be available or when the vessel would be allowed to dock, but a passenger said results were anticipated Friday at the earliest.

Roughly 3,500 people are currently on the ship. Of those, 21 passengers and crew members have symptoms of the virus, and 62 passengers traveled on the Mexican leg of the cruise and may have been exposed.

Authorities suspect the outbreak on the Grand Princess started before it docked in San Francisco on Feb. 21, with some passengers disembarking before the ship moved on to Mexico. About half of the 2,500 passengers onboard were from California, said Gov. Gavin Newsom. In a briefing Wednesday, he said authorities were working to quickly locate all those who disembarked.

The investigation of the ship’s passengers Thursday came as San Francisco reported its first cases of the new coronavirus. Four more cases were reported in Los Angeles, with six more in Santa Clara County. Several of the new cases suggest the virus is spreading in the community, according to San Francisco Bay Area health authorities.

Multiple passengers who spoke with the Times said the cruise was troubled from the outset. The ship was delayed more than half a day by a medical emergency that forced it to return to a Hawaiian port. By the time it arrived in San Francisco Bay, “it was hectic, people were tired,” said Frank Tallarico, who was traveling with his husband, Kyle Cunningham.

Soloman said that despite being asked to self-certify they were healthy, he and his wife, Ella, noticed people “coughing and hacking in line,” and were concerned by a lack of action on the part of the crew.

“We are looking at each other thinking, ‘Wouldn’t you think a staff would come up and say we’d like to interview you before you check in?’ ”

Jeff Casalengo, traveling with his wife, Judy, said he received an email prior to boarding outlining precautions related to coronavirus. The infections aboard the Diamond Princess, said Tallarico, were on everybody’s mind.

Casalengo said that based on the cruise company’s communication, he expected to go through a preboarding screening that could include having his temperature taken.

But “they didn’t take the precautions we thought they were going to take,” Casalengo said.

Princess Cruises spokeswoman Negin Kamalil said the protocol for more stringent health screenings, such as taking temperatures, is used only in places with known outbreaks or with passengers with risk factors, and that all normal protocols were followed in boarding the Grand Princess. She said she was not immediately familiar with what the boarding email to passengers said.

“I found out from CNN,” said a person currently on the ship who asked not to be identified, speaking about the situation onboard.

Newsom said the boat would not be allowed to dock in San Francisco until passengers deemed at risk had been tested for the virus.

The outbreak of coronavirus is the second for Princess Cruises. Nearly 700 passengers on the Diamond Princess in Japan were potentially exposed to coronavirus weeks ago, forcing a massive quarantine, including about 300 Americans who were recently released from military bases after completing a 14-day isolation period.

In the more recent incident, two people currently on the Grand Princess, which is in international waters about a day out from the Bay Area, said the cruise line failed to inform them in a timely manner that the ship could be held offshore until testing is completed. That news reached them Wednesday around 9 p.m. via an announcement from the ship’s captain, five hours after Newsom said it at a news conference.

One female passenger, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid alarming family and friends, told the Times it was “sad and scary” to learn the information from a reporter before an official announcement had been made on the ship. She said earlier events aboard had been canceled with little explanation.

“Anything (with) a large group gathering is being canceled,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “You have never heard a cruise ship go silent when (the captain’s) announcements come on over the PA system.”

Kamali confirmed Wednesday evening that the company was “developing communication right now to inform the guests,” but had not done so before the news conference.

Guests on the ship said they were told late Wednesday night that about 100 people would be tested for the virus, with kits expected to arrive by Thursday morning via helicopter.

“No one will be allowed to leave the ship until results are back,” said the female passenger. “How long is that?”

On Wednesday, Newsom said that, “By this evening, we will have contacted every county health official that has someone who came off this cruise.”

But that process will probably take days, if not longer, given the number of passengers. And assigning county health departments the duty could present challenges as many already are stretched responding to the crisis. California now has the largest outbreak of coronavirus cases in the United States: The virus has been reported in at least 13 counties and has sickened more than 50 people statewide.

Thursday evening, multiple people who had been on the cruise said they had not heard from any health officials, and three said they had attempted to self-report themselves to county health departments and been turned away from testing.

Passengers who exited the Grand Princess on Feb. 21 said they began receiving emails from Princess Cruises on Wednesday informing them of the potential exposure and including a link to information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tallarico received the email about 4:30 a.m. in his home in Pittsburgh. He said he told his husband, Cunningham, “You are not going to believe this.”

The couple called their county health department because both had symptoms of the virus. They were immediately tested and are under house quarantine while the results come back. But they have little idea when that will be, or if the quarantine will remain in place even if they do not test positive for the virus.

“We were told we need two negative tests,” Tallarico said, taking a break from watching Netflix.

Tallarico said he worried he might have already passed the virus on to others. He and Cunningham flew back to Pennsylvania after the cruise, stopping over in Detroit. He is frustrated that he has not heard more from the cruise line about the exposure, despite calling and tweeting to the company.

“Princess has not called us back today with any information,” Tallarico said. “We haven’t heard anything.”

Mark Cadiz and his wife, Judy, were on the Grand Princess to Mexico celebrating her 50th birthday. He found out from the news that he had been exposed, he said.

“No one has contacted (us),” he said. “I expect somebody might.”

On Wednesday, the Cadizes were in a hotel in Oakland, Calif., where they had traveled for business.

Both of them are ill, he said. Cadiz said he had been sick since Thursday with chest congestion and sinus problems bad enough that he had stayed home from work for four days.

“I am wheezing in my sleep,” Cadiz said. “It wakes me up.”

Cadiz said they passed the illness to their daughter, who runs a restaurant. After hearing about the possible exposure, Cadiz said he planned to seek medical attention Thursday.

“It hit me full force about an hour ago,” he said. “Now that I know there is a connection, I am going to take care of it.”

At least one person who should have been on official lists was not.

Sacramento, Calif., resident Jeff Casalengo was on the cruise with his wife. On Friday, he came down with a cough in his lungs, he said.

He’s been taking Nyquil to sleep and allergy medicine in the day, and working his job installing fire sprinklers.

“I assumed it was allergies,” he said.

On Thursday, after receiving the email from Princess Cruises, he called his county health department. They told Casalengo he was not on the list of ship passengers they had received, and didn’t know if he met the criteria to be tested.

“They said they will call me if I need to be tested,” said Casalengo. “I probably don’t have it, but it would be nice to know for sure.”

Casalengo said he’s also worried about spreading the virus. When he returned from the cruise, one of the first things he did was take his elderly father to see the movie “1917.” A few days later, he visited a relative that has a lung condition. Now, with uncertainty looming, he doesn’t know whether he should self-quarantine.

“I want to do the right thing, but I really don’t know,” he said. “It would suck to stay home and not be paid because they don’t want to test people for it.”

For Casalengo, it’s an unsettling ending to a cruise he enjoyed. He doesn’t know what to expect next for himself, but he thinks containment will be hard.

“It’s on the West Coast now,” he said. “It’s here.”

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