Coronavirus: Failures on the Diamond Princess shadow another cruise ship outbreak

The email to Princess Cruises was peppered with typos and awkward grammar, but the warning was unmistakable. An 80-year-old passenger had tested positive for the new coronavirus after getting off the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Hong Kong.

“Would kindly inform the ship related parties and do the necessary disinfection,” Princess’ port representative wrote Feb. 1, relaying a warning from Hong Kong health officials. “Many thanks!”

Nothing happened. Princess says it believes the alert sat unread in unmonitored inboxes. Grant Tarling, the company’s top doctor and the person in charge of responding to outbreaks, said he had not learned about the infection until the following day — after being alerted to a post on social media.

The fumbled alert was just the beginning of a broader breakdown by both the company and the Japanese authorities who quarantined the ship in Yokohama. Hobbled by confusion and mistakes, they played down the risk of infection, ignored best medical practice for evacuating passengers, and activated only low-level protocols for dealing with outbreaks. Ultimately, eight people died and more than 700 were infected, including some government officials.

Now, those failures have taken on fresh urgency as Princess and Tarling deal with yet another coronavirus cluster, on a cruise ship that has been turned away from port in San Francisco. A passenger who recently got off the cruise died of the virus last week, and 21 people have since tested positive.

The ship is expected to dock in Oakland, California, on Monday, and passengers will be quarantined onshore.

In conversations onboard, passengers have been asking, “Will we become another Diamond Princess?” said Bill Pearce, a 54-year-old from Lafayette, California.

The crisis on the Diamond Princess exposes the vulnerabilities in the patchwork of international agreements, national laws and corporate policies governing the health and safety of the US$150 billion cruise industry that carries 30 million passengers a year.

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