COVID-19 outbreak hits another Bay Area cruise ship trip

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Dozens of passengers aboard the Ruby Princess cruise ship fell ill with COVID-19 during a trip from San Francisco to Hawaii that ended last week and followed a trip to Panama in which dozens of passengers were also infected with the virus on the same ship.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health said 143 passengers aboard the Ruby Princess round trip from San Francisco to Hawaii that ended April 11 had tested positive for the virus, nearly twice more than the 73 reported sick with COVID-19 after the ship returned on March 27. to San Francisco from Panama.

“It was pretty clear that there was a large percentage of sick passengers, but unless you declared yourself, you were free to go on and infect other passengers,” said Ted Vomacka of Antioch, who said he was among the passengers who tested positive on the ship and was forced to quarantine in separate quarters from his wife, Larisa, who eventually tested positive after returning home.

Vomacka and other passengers said they were not informed of the outbreak as it was spreading on board, and there was no testing for the virus to identify other potentially infected passengers. without symptoms.

“It was obvious, watching all the coughing and hacking, that some form of infection was circulating,” he said.

Cruise ships, where some of the earliest outbreaks of the pandemic were reported in Japan and the Bay Area in early 2020, continue to be hit as increasingly contagious variants of the virus circulate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 100 cruise ships are participating in its COVID-19 cruise ship program, and its online tracker says 52 of those are currently under investigation for outbreaks. Only 21 of them have not reported any cases.

The two recent Ruby Princess outbreaks have prompted CDC investigations as part of its cruise ship COVID-19 screening program.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health said crew and passengers on Ruby Princess voyages through the Panama Canal and Hawaii were 100% vaccinated and “the vast majority of those who tested positive for COVID n ‘felt only mild or no symptoms’.

Only one person on the trip to Hawaii was hospitalized, the department said, “a testament to the incredible effectiveness of vaccination.”

In March 2020, early outbreaks prompted the CDC to issue a no-sail order that ended last June with new health and safety requirements. But the CDC in December, at the height of the spike in cases caused by the omicron variant, advised travelers to avoid cruise ships even if they were vaccinated.

The CDC is currently advising that even vaccinated people can be infected with the virus on cruise ships and that travelers make sure they are “up to date” on their vaccines, with a booster or two if they are eligible. .

Princess Cruises said in a statement in response to questions about recent Ruby Princess outbreaks that “the protocols that have been established are working.”

“When cases are identified due to onboard testing, cruise ship protocols help maximize onboard containment with rapid response procedures designed to protect all other guests and crew as well as communities that ships visit,” the cruise line’s statement continued.

The measures include a CDC requirement that at least 95% of customers prove they are fully vaccinated at least two weeks before travel, except for children under 5 who are not currently eligible for vaccines. , the cruise line said. Crew members are vaccinated and will receive a booster dose in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Passengers must also provide proof of a negative COVID-19 viral test taken before or upon embarkation, and those on consecutive voyages disembark the ship at the end of each voyage and receive a free test for COVID-19, the company said. . They can no longer board the ship unless they receive a negative test result. Testing protocols, he said, are based on CDC guidelines and onboard COVID-19 medical care is available free of charge.

San Francisco health officials said they have additional agreements with cruise lines embarking or disembarking in the city, requiring them to arrange private transportation and shore accommodation for the quarantine of passengers or crew. infected. Cruise lines are also required to enter into private agreements with medical facilities to treat positive passengers or crew, in case hospitalization is required.

None of the recent cruise ship outbreaks were at the highest ‘red’ level that would trigger additional health measures such as requiring testing to screen passengers and crew for the virus, requiring wear a mask and to inform passengers of current, previous and next trips.

The CDC investigates outbreaks affecting at least 0.3% of passengers or crew. The 951-foot-long Ruby Princess, which made its maiden voyage in 2008, can carry 3,080 passengers and 1,200 crew.

According to CruiseMapper.com, she is scheduled to return to San Francisco on Saturday from an Easter voyage that began April 16 up the California coast to Ensenada, Mexico.

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