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Passenger 'never had coronavirus to our knowledge' after cruise ship chaos, CDC says

The Diamond Princess cruise ship, with around 3,600 people quarantined onboard due to fears of the new coronavirus, sails from Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama on February 11, 2020. An American woman who was said to have tested positive for coronavirus in Malaysia "never had coronavirus to our knowledge," a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said Friday, Feb. 21.

CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By MORGAN HINES AND ANDREA MANDELL | USA Today | Published: February 22, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — After chaos for a cruise ship of passengers and crew, an 83-year-old American woman who was said to have tested positive for coronavirus in Malaysia "never had coronavirus to our knowledge," a spokesperson for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention told USA TODAY late Friday.

"I have confirmed that all the passengers were tested, and they have come back negative for coronavirus, including the person who initially tested positive," said CDC spokesperson Richard Quartarone. He added that the hospitalized woman "may have had a respiratory illness, but if she did, it was not COVID-19."

The CDC received those results Thursday, said Quartarone. He said the CDC sent revised guidance to state and local health officials late Thursday based on those results.

If Westerdam passengers "have questions or think they shouldn't self-quarantine and were told to (do so) by their local health department, follow up with your local health department," he advised.

Earlier Friday, USA TODAY learned the American passenger was still in a hospital with symptoms. Holland America's "Care Team" remained on the ground to provide support to the woman and her husband, Sally Andrews, spokesperson for the cruise line, told USA TODAY in an email.

"We are happy to hear that she is recovered and hope that she and her husband will be able to make their way home soon," said Andrews.

The news that the woman has been cleared comes one day after the Cambodian Ministry of Health confirmed that the 747 crew members still on board the Westerdam tested negative for coronavirus; 781 passengers who were still in the country were cleared, too.

Throughout the cruise, Holland America maintained that no one on board had symptoms or tested positive for coronavirus, though the MS Westerdam was turned away at multiple ports, including Japan, Guam and Thailand, until Cambodia welcomed the ship.

The Westerdam departed Hong Kong on Feb. 1 and was scheduled to disembark in Shanghai on Saturday before coronavirus gripped mainland China and forced itinerary changes.

According to the South China Morning Post, Cambodia is questioning the authenticity of Malaysia's initial positive test.

Cambodia's health ministry, as reported by the Chinese newspaper, said in a statement that "the irregularity of the testing results by Malaysian authorities made all passengers on the Westerdam cruise ship scared and confused" and massively delayed those trying to get home.

"Today, justice is given to Cambodia and all the passengers on the ship," said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to the media outlet.

Steve Muth, a passenger from Michigan who was on the Westerdam with his family, has his own suspicions about the validity of the American woman's coronavirus test.

"I think that many, including myself, are very suspicious of the first test results that indicated she was positive," he said in an email to USA TODAY on Friday. "This false-positive test result has caused untold damage to hundreds of innocent passengers on the Westerdam from denied boarding on flights home to public shunning."

Some of that damage was financial. Elly Chybowski, who was traveling aboard the Westerdam with her husband, Timothy, was routed on flights from Cambodia through Tokyo and Dallas/Fort Worth on their way home to Madison, Wisconsin. Then "roughly two hours before our connecting flight from (Tokyo) to Dallas, we discovered that our tickets had been cancelled for unknown reasons," she told USA TODAY by email.

Panicked and unable to get answers, the couple rebooked flights on their own dime, an out-of-pocket expense that totaled $5,130. They arrived home Wednesday.

Once home, the couple were contacted by their local public health department, Chybowski wrote Friday, noting that they had shared a dining room table with the woman who initially tested positive on the ship.

Considered a "medium-risk exposure," the Wisconsin couple have self-quarantined until the end of the monitoring period on Feb. 27, to mitigate the possibility of infecting others. Chybowski's physician husband has not be able to return to his practice, and their adult children drop off food in their garage.

"The disruption to the lives of so many is tremendous," stressed Chybowski. "The emotional stress to all of us during the time of uncertainty before we got home is immeasurable."    

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