SAN FRANCISCO >> Scrambling to keep the coronavirus at bay, officials ordered a cruise ship with about 3,500 people aboard to stay back from the California coast today until passengers and crew can be tested, after a traveler from its previous voyage died of the disease and at least two others became infected.
A Coast Guard helicopter lowered test kits onto the Grand Princess by rope as the vessel lay at anchor off Northern California, and authorities said the results would be available on Friday. Princess Cruise Lines said fewer than 100 people aboard had been identified for testing.
“The ship will not come on shore until we appropriately assess the passengers,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.
The precaution was prompted by the death of a Sacramento-area man who succumbed to the coronavirus after he had been on an an earlier sailing of the ship, in February. Two other passengers from that voyage have been hospitalized with the virus in Northern California, officials said.
The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus climbed to 12 today, with all but one of the deaths in Washington state. Nine of the victims were from the same suburban Seattle nursing home, now under federal investigation.
The cruise line said that no cases of the virus had been confirmed among those still on the ship. But dozens of passengers have had flu-like symptoms over the past two weeks or so, said Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.
“Once we have results from the tests,” she said, authorities “will determine the best location for the ship to berth.”
The ship was returning to San Francisco after visiting Hawaii. Some of the passengers remained on board after sailing on its previous voyage, to the Mexican ports of Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.
The coronavirus has infected nearly 98,000 people worldwide and killed over 3,300, the vast majority of them in China.
With new cases surfacing around the U.S., New York’s mayor implored the federal government to send more test kits to his state, which saw its caseload double overnight to 22, all of them in or near the city. In Rhode Island, about 200 people were quarantined because of their connections to a school trip to Italy that has so far resulted in three cases of the coronavirus. Amid four cases in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the risks remain low for most people planning trips to the state for spring break or baseball’s spring training.
U.S. health officials said they expect a far lower death rate than the World Health Organization’s international estimate of 3.4% — a rate admittedly too high because it doesn’t account for mild cases that go uncounted.
Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir cited a model that included mild cases to say the U.S. could expect a death rate somewhere between 0.1% — like seasonal flu — and 1%. The risk is highest for older people and anyone with conditions such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or suppressed immune systems, such as from cancer treatments.
An unfazed Colette Pratt, 86, of Sausalito, California, was on the Grand Princess’ cruise to Mexico and said she has avoided movie theaters and social gatherings since then for fear of spreading any illness.
“The worse I’ve got is a slight sore throat, but I often get allergies at this time of year,” she said, adding that her doctor told her to call him if she developed major symptoms. Pratt said she and her friend stuck to themselves and played a lot of dominoes during the cruise, and they enjoyed the trip and have plans to go again in April, to Hawaii.
At least 70 cases have been reported in Washington state, most them in the Seattle area, where researchers say the virus may have been circulating undetected for weeks.
Some major Seattle-area businesses, including Microsoft, Amazon and outdoor gear manufacturer REI, have shut down some operations or urged employees to work from home, while the 22,000-student Northshore district announced it will close for up to two weeks as a precaution. The two tech giants together employ more than 100,000 people in the region.
With many commuters off the road, traffic on the Seattle area’s notoriously congested freeways was much lighter today.
Seattle’s King County is buying a motel for $4 million to house coronavirus patients and hopes to have the first of them in place within days at the 84-room EconoLodge in Kent, about 20 miles from Seattle. The rooms’ doors open to the outside rather than to a central hallway, reducing the likelihood of contact between patients.
The plan ran into resistance from local leaders, including Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla, who called it “ill-advised and dangerous” and warned: “At any point a patient can simply walk into our community and spread the virus.”
Federal health authorities have launched an investigation of the nursing home at the epicenter of the nation’s worst outbreak, the Life Care Center in Kirkland, to determine whether it followed guidelines for preventing infections. Last April, the state fined it $67,000 over infection-control deficiencies after two flu outbreaks.