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NIH Official: Diamond Princess Quarantine "Failed"

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Diamond Princess (file image)

By The Maritime Executive 02-17-2020 09:40:00

Japan's health ministry confirmed Monday that 99 more people have tested positive for infection with coronavirus aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess, bringing the total to 454 out of 1,700 people tested. There were originally about 3,700 people aboard the ship when quarantine began on February 5, but this number has gradually fallen as the ill have been identified and evacuated. 

328 American nationals have also been removed by the U.S. government and flown to the United States for further quarantine; Australia, Italy, Hong Kong and Canada are making preparations for similar services. 

The 99 new positive cases from Diamond Princess include 14 evacuated Americans who were diagnosed while in transit. These evacuees were allowed to board charter planes for a return flight to the United States, and they were seated in a sectioned-off area of the plane, separated from other passengers by plastic sheeting. After the flight's arrival at Travis Air Force Base in California, the confirmed cases were flown onwards to Nebraska for treatment at the National Quarantine Unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“We were there for Ebola, we were there for the Americans [evacuated from Wuhan] and we’re going to be there for these American citizens as well,” said Dr. Jeffrey P. Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, in a statement Monday. 

Shipboard quarantine "ineffective"

By quarantining Diamond Princess Japanese health officials intended to prevent the coronavirus infection from spreading to the Japanese public, and they also sought to halt its transfer from passenger to passenger. The quarantine did not achieve that second goal, according to the top infectious disease official at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. 

"The quarantine process failed," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, speaking to USA Today. "I'd like to sugarcoat it and try to be diplomatic about it, but it failed . . . Something went awry in the process of the quarantining on that ship. I don't know what it was, but a lot of people got infected on that ship."

However, health experts are also deeply concerned about the possible containment risk created by omitting shipboard quarantine. On February 14, about 1,200 people disembarked the cruise ship Westerdam, which had been denied entry at multiple ports previously over coronavirus concerns. There were no confirmed or suspected cases of the disease on board, but Westerdam had taken on passengers in Hong Kong, which is subject to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. After attempting to call in Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Guam and Thailand, Westerdam finally obtained permission to call in Cambodia. When Westerdam disembarked most of her passengers in Sihanoukville last Friday, they were free to pursue onward travel or head back to their respective home countries. 

Later that day, one 83-year-old passenger from Westerdam tested positive for coronavirus after falling ill at the airport in Kuala Lumpur - raising questions about whether others on board may have also caught the disease. If there were any more positive cases, they could potentially carry it internationally.

Multiple national health agencies are attempting to contain the risk, and hundreds of former Westerdam passengers are now quarantined in their hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, awaiting results on whether they may have the coronavirus. The first batch of tests has come back with 406 negatives and no positives, according to Holland America.