Cruise ship held off California coast for coronavirus testing

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Scrambling to keep the coronavirus at bay, officials ordered a cruise ship with about 3,500 people aboard to hold off the California coast Thursday until passengers and crew could be tested, after a traveler from its previous voyage died and at least one other became infected.

A Coast Guard helicopter was expected to deliver test kits to the Grand Princess once it reached the waters off San Francisco later in the day. Princess Cruise Lines said fewer than 100 of those aboard had been identified for testing.

“The ship will not come on shore until we appropriately assess the passengers,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Three commuters, center, wear masks as they walk through the World Trade Center transportation hub on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

On Wednesday, Newsom declared a state of emergency over the virus, opening the way for federal aid, after the death of a man in Placer County, near Sacramento, who had been on an earlier sailing of the ship in February.

It was the nation’s first coronavirus death outside Washington state and brought the U.S. death toll to 11, with most of the victims from a suburban Seattle nursing home, now under investigation.

Another previous passenger has also been hospitalized in Northern California. The cruise line said that no cases of the virus had been confirmed among those still on the ship but that some passengers had experienced flu-like symptoms.

The ship was returning to San Francisco after visiting Hawaii. Some of the passengers remained aboard after sailing on the ship’s previous voyage, to the Mexican ports of Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.

The virus has infected nearly 97,000 people worldwide and killed over 3,300, the vast majority of them in China.

On Thursday, 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.

Meanwhile, public officials in Washington came under pressure to take more aggressive steps against the outbreak, including closing schools and canceling large events. At least 39 coronavirus cases have been reported in the Seattle area, where researchers say the virus may have been circulating undetected for weeks.

A housekeeping worker wears a mask as she cleans a room on Wednesday at an Econo Lodge motel in Kent, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Acting on their own, some major Seattle-area businesses, including Microsoft and outdoor gear manufacturer REI, have shut down some operations or urged employees to work from home, while the 22,000-student Northshore district north of Seattle announced it will close for up to two weeks as a precaution.

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 (32 km) from Seattle. The rooms’ doors open to the outside rather than to a central hallway, reducing the likelihood of contact between patients.

Federal health authorities have launched an investigation of the nursing home at the center of the Washington outbreak, the Life Care Center in Kirkland, to determine whether it followed guidelines for preventing infections. Last April, the state fined Life Care $67,000 over infection-control deficiencies after two flu outbreaks.

Also Thursday, Rhode Island officials said about 200 people were quarantined because they have connections to a school trip to Italy that has so far resulted in three cases of the coronavirus.


Associated Press Writers Gene Johnson, Rachel La Corte, Martha Bellisle and Carla K. Johnson contributed to this report.