The state of Florida has reported two deaths from coronavirus, the first US fatalities outside the west coast, as thousands remain quarantined on a cruise ship moored off the coast of California, near San Francisco.
Health officials said the deaths in Florida involved two people in their 70s who had travelled overseas, one in Santa Rosa County and the other near Fort Myers. The US death toll is now 17, with 333 confirmed cases in the Covid-19 novel coronavirus outbreak.
And on the Grand Princess cruise ship moored outside San Francisco, nearly half of the 46 people tested for coronavirus onboard have returned a positive result, vice president Mike Pence said. The fate of its more than 3,500 passengers and crew from more than 50 countries remains unclear.
Pence said 21 positive results had been recorded – 19 crew members and two passengers – and that “those that will need to be quarantined will be quarantined. Those who will require medical help will receive it.” He urged elderly Americans to consider carefully taking future cruises during the crisis.
There is little detail as to where quarantined and sick passengers will be taken. Previously, military sites have been used to quarantine holidaymakers from the Diamond Princess, moored off Yokohama. On the Grand Princess, some passengers have already complained about the handling of the situation, saying they learned of the coronavirus cases from media reports, and there are concerns for one passenger who has stage 4 cancer.
There are 2,422 guests and 1,111 crew on the vessel, with more than 140 Britons and four Australians among them.
Globally, the virus has now killed nearly 3,500 people and infected more than 100,000 across 92 nations and territories. Italy and Iran have become the latest hotspots with sharp rises in confirmed cases, recording 4,636 and 4,747 respectively.
In China, 99 new cases were confirmed, and 29 deaths as of midnight Friday. In official data released on Saturday, China’s exports fell 17.2%, the biggest drop since February 2019 during the trade war with the US, and imports dropped 4%.
The US government plans to take the Grand Princess to a “non-commercial port” where all the passengers and crew would be tested, however, President Donald Trump said on Friday he would prefer not to allow the passengers onto American soil.
“I like the numbers being where they are,” said Trump, who appeared to be explicitly acknowledging his political concerns about the outbreak: “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
Closer to the epicentre of the global outbreak, Hong Kong further sealed itself off from the outside world, with authorities advising Hongkongers against all non-essential travel abroad, and making all arrivals complete a health declaration form.
Previously, the measure, which will come into force from Sunday, was required only for mainland Chinese passengers. The city has reported 106 cases and two deaths in the past six weeks, according to its health officials.
In Australia, authorities are working to trace about 70 patients of a doctor who continued to see patients despite falling ill with coronavirus-like symptoms. He fell ill in the US during a flight from Denver to San Francisco on 27 February before flying back to Melbourne and working throughout the following week. He was later confirmed to have the virus and Toorak clinic, where he works, has since been closed.
Victoria’s health minister, Jenny Mikakos, said: “I have to say I am flabbergasted that a doctor that has flu-like symptoms has presented to work,” Mikakos said.
Equally astonished were police in Sydney, who appealed for calm after a brawl broke out between three women in a supermarket over toilet paper amid continued panic buying. “We just ask that people don’t panic like this when they go out shopping,” said acting inspector Andrew New from New South Wales police. “There is no need for it. It isn’t the Thunderdome, it isn’t Mad Max, we don’t need to do that.
“There is no need for people to go out and panic buy at supermarkets, paracetamol and canned food or toilet paper.”
In the meantime, passengers aboard the Grand Princess remained holed up in their rooms as they awaited word about the fate of the ship. Some said ship officials only informed them of the confirmed coronavirus cases after they first learned about it from news reports.
Passenger Kari Kolstoe, a retiree from North Dakota has stage-4 cancer and is particularly concerned. Kolstoe, 60, said she and her husband, Paul, 61, had looked forward to the cruise to Hawaii as a brief, badly needed respite from the grind of medical intervention she has endured for the past 18 months.
Now facing the prospect of a two-week quarantine far from home in Grand Forks, she worried their getaway cruise will end up causing a fateful delay in her next round of chemotherapy, scheduled to begin early next week.
“It’s very unsettling,” she said in a telephpone interview from the ship on Friday. “It’s still a worry that I’m going to not get back.”
Besides the implications for cancer treatment is the fear of falling ill from exposure to a respiratory virus especially dangerous to older people with chronic health conditions and suppressed immunity. “I’m very at risk for this,” said Kolstoe, whose rare form of neuroendocrine cancer has spread throughout her body. “Me staying on here for a lot of reasons isn’t good.”
Steven Smith and his wife, Michele, of Paradise, California, went on the cruise to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They said they were a bit worried but felt safe in their room, which they had left just once since Thursday to video chat with their children. Crew members wearing masks and gloves delivered trays with their food in covered plates and left them outside their door.
To pass the time they have been watching television, reading and looking out the window, they said. “Thank God, we have a window!” Steven said.
An epidemiologist who studies the spread of virus particles said the recirculated air from a cruise ship’s ventilation system, plus the close quarters and communal settings, made passengers and crew vulnerable to infectious diseases. “They’re not designed as quarantine facilities, to put it mildly,” said Don Milton of the University of Maryland. “You’re going to amplify the infection by keeping people on the boat.”
Another Princess ship, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined for two weeks in Yokohama, Japan, last month because of the virus. Ultimately, about 700 of the 3,700 people aboard became infected in what experts pronounced a public-health failure, with the vessel essentially becoming a floating germ factory.
In the US, officials in Austin cancelled this year’s SXSW festival, a major tech and music conference, amid coronavirus concerns. SXSW, which draws 400,000 visitors, was scheduled for 13 to 22 March.
Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, said: “I’ve gone ahead and declared a local disaster in the city and associated with that, have issued an order that effectively cancels SXSW.”
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