Thousands of holidaymakers aboard one of Asia’s largest cruise liners are now stranded on the ship and may not be allowed to disembark for two more weeks, as health officials in Hong Kong, already grappling with a local contagion, wonder what to do with the “floating den of virus.”
The World Dream, a colossal 150,000-ton vessel carrying 3,600 passengers and crew members, cruised into Hong Kong, her home port, on Wednesday and docked at the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Kowloon. Her voyage to Taiwan and back during the Lunar New Year break was cut short after authorities in Kaohsiung on Tuesday refused entry to everyone on board, and it was only after the ship was turned away that passengers became aware of the health scare.
It was revealed that eight mainland Chinese travelers who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus had walked up and down the ship’s 18 decks, dined at its restaurants and soaked up the sun in its jacuzzi pools during a previous voyage from Guangzhou to Vietnam from January 19 to 24.
Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection (CHP) is now tracking about 206 passengers who left the ship on January 24 in the city, as they could have had some contact with the mainlanders during the journey. Thirty-three crew members are displaying symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection and three of them have been put under isolation due to fever, though testing of the samples collected from them has shown no sign of coronavirus infection, with the result of a final one still pending.
The 2,000 passengers still trapped on the ship, mostly Hongkongers believed to have not interacted with the eight mainlanders as they departed on different dates, are not allowed to disembark and may continue to be stuck on the vessel for 14 days for quarantine, unless the CHP gives them a clean slate.
On Thursday, preventative port health inspection work was still underway, and, in full protective gear, personnel from the center’s Port Health Division have been assessing the health condition of passengers and crew members through health declarations and temperature checking.
The center has not ruled out holding the entire ship and everyone on it for epidemiological investigation and quarantine for 14 days, as the deadly pathogen, tracing its origin back to Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, may have passed from one passenger to another when thousands on the ship feasted, drank and reveled together during the voyage to Vietnam. The risk of more infections is still lurking in the shadows as the ship’s casinos and banquet halls could be crawling with the highly contagious virus.
The Hong Kong government announced on Wednesday that the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal and Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui would be closed with immediate effect, on top of a sweeping order imposing a 14-day mandatory quarantine on all entering the city from mainland China.
With total confirmed cases reaching 22 as of Thursday afternoon, fears have returned to haunt the city amid the ongoing epidemic, as it has the potential to tigger a repeat of the devastating SARS outbreak of 2003.
The cruise’s operator, Dream Cruise, said it had swiftly halted future voyages and stopped accepting new bookings, and would thoroughly sterilize the ship’s 1,686 guest rooms. But some stranded passengers are questioning why the captain did not issue the alert in time, even after the company had been notified by the Chinese authorities on Sunday of the eight infected mainlanders.
Meanwhile, many still on the ship continue to enjoy the amenities. The cinema, mahjong parlors and buffet restaurants are still buzzing with people.
Some told reporters over the phone that they would rather be quarantined on a well-appointed, luxury cruise than be locked up in a remote isolation camp, but others took to social media seeking masks and hand sanitizer, as the ship’s stocks had been depleted.
A Hong Kong police force riot squad has been stationed at the cruise terminal since Wednesday evening, when medical teams boarded to inspect passengers.
Meanwhile, Japan has confirmed 10 new cases of infection among the 3,711 on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been anchored off the port of Yokohama since earlier this week, after an 80-year-old man who disembarked during the ship’s Hong Kong port call on January 25 was diagnosed with pneumonia.