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Cruise Ship Kept In Coronavirus Quarantine Off California Coast

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than 3,000 people are trapped on a cruise ship off the California coast near San Francisco. Health officials began testing them today for the coronavirus. Two former passengers already had tested positive. One of them died yesterday. He was the first person to die from the disease in California. NPR's Eric Westervelt is following this story.

Hi, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, tell us more about the ship and what's happening on board there today.

WESTERVELT: Well, some 2,500 passengers are disembarked in San Francisco on February 21 after a - on cruise to Mexico, on the Princess Cruise lines. And two people from that cruise later tested positive. And as you said, one died yesterday. He was a 71-year-old man who we are told had underlying health conditions. And a second passenger from that same voyage has been hospitalized with the virus. And here's the thing - 62 passengers from that Mexico trip stayed on for a cruise on to Hawaii, a trip that was cut short because of illness. So the concern, of course, is that, you know, those 62 people may have been exposed to the virus onboard and maybe potentially exposed some of those new passengers as well.

SHAPIRO: Now, California's governor, Gavin Newsom, says the ship will not be allowed to dock in San Francisco as planned until everyone who might be at risk gets tested for the virus. What does that process involve?

WESTERVELT: Well, today some 200 test kits we're told were airlifted to the ship by helicopter. The U.S. Coast Guard, the CDC, along with state and city health officials are all working together on that testing. Those tests are being taken now to a nearby state lab in the Bay Area. We're told those test results should come back sometime tomorrow. Health officials also told us today 35 people onboard had shown flu-like symptoms, but that many of those people have already recovered. But we'll have to wait for those results to come back tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: But you said 2,500 people who are on the ship with this person who had coronavirus disembarked. What about them?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. I mean, they're getting on with their lives. And now health officials are, you know, faced with the tough task of tracking down hundreds of passengers who were on that trip. Governor Newsom said, you know, about half of those 2,500 who are onboard are from California. Here's the governor at a press conference last night. He says they've already started contacting everyone who came off that ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GAVIN NEWSOM: That is not an easy job. I'm not naive about the scope of quite literally hundreds and hundreds of people. But we have the capacity to do it.

SHAPIRO: And, Eric, what can you tell us about how passengers on board the ship are doing?

WESTERVELT: Well, from all we know, they're doing OK. I mean, they face the real possibility, Ari, of being quarantined, you know, on that ship for two weeks if tests come back positive. We're told that the passengers from Mexico who stayed on, you know, have to remain in their rooms until they're tested and then cleared by all medical staff.

And I spoke with Mark Achter from Utah. His wife Monica is on board the ship with her parents. They said - you know, he told me they went on a fun cruise. He had to stay home and work, but they had a great time until about a day ago. And he says they're doing OK. They aren't sick. But his big concern - he told me communication from ship officials has not been great.

MARK ACHTER: They're not forthcoming a lot on what's going forward. They're not giving them what's the next step. Maybe they don't know. I mean, this is all new to everybody.

WESTERVELT: Other passengers already have complained on social media about lax communication from the company, that many of them heard about all this from the news media, not the ship staff. We've reached out for comment to Princess Cruises, and we haven't heard back yet.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Eric Westervelt, thank you.

WESTERVELT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.