By Steve Gorman and Barbara Goldberg
(Reuters) – An ocean liner barred from returning to port in San Francisco due to a coronavirus outbreak on board will dock briefly at a nearby terminal in Oakland, where passengers will be unloaded and sent on to medical and quarantine sites elsewhere, officials said on Sunday.
The cruise ship Grand Princess, whose guests have been largely confined to their staterooms since Thursday, is due to arrive at the Port of Oakland on Monday to begin immediately disgorging its 2,400 passengers, California Governor Gavin Newsom told a news conference.
Nearly all 1,100 crew members will remain on board the vessel, which will depart Oakland as soon as possible following removal of the passengers and sail for an as-yet undetermined location outside San Francisco Bay for the duration of their two-week quarantine, he said.
Passengers requiring acute medical attention and hospitalization will be allowed off the ship first and taken to health care facilities elsewhere in California, as would a relatively limited number of crew expected to need immediate treatment, the governor said.
The remaining U.S.-based passengers will be transferred to one of four quarantine stations set up at military bases in California and elsewhere across the country for diagnostic testing and isolation, officials said.
All will remain under mandatory quarantine for 14 days, the presumed incubation period of the sometimes-deadly respiratory virus, also known as COVID-19, while they are tested and monitored for signs of infection.
‘RIGHT THING TO DO’
Newsom praised local officials for agreeing to welcome the ship temporarily. “They are showing the world what makes our state great – coming to the rescue of thousands of people trapped aboard this ship and helping tackle a national emergency,” the governor said.
“It is the right thing to do,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at the news conference. “We have to not let our fears dictate or impede our humanity.”
To hasten the triage process and minimize how much time the ship needs to remain in Portland, the U.S. Coast Guard was flying special mobile medical teams out to the vessel on Sunday to assess the health of passengers and crew ahead of their arrival, Newsom said.
Passengers who are well and from California – about 1,000 have been identified as state residents – will be taken to either Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento or Marine Corps Air Station Miramar close to San Diego.
Passengers from other states will be transported to either Joint Base San Antonio Lackland in Texas or Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia. That number was not specified, though at least 34 are from Georgia, according to state officials.
Newsom said the U.S. government was working to repatriate foreign cruise passengers, who are to be flown to their home countries aboard charter flights out of Oakland International Airport. He said those individuals would be ferried on special buses to a non-commercial airport terminal to board planes from the tarmac, avoiding contact with the general public.
State and federal authorities has said several hundred cruise passengers of other nationalities have been identified, including Canadians. Newsom said passengers and crew together represent 54 countries.
The Port of Oakland, located across San Francisco Bay from the vessel’s home berth, was chosen because it was one of few in the region able to accommodate a large cruise liner and was deemed relatively easy to seal off while passengers are unloaded and moved elsewhere, Newsom said.
A berth was being prepared on a secured 10-acre site in the outer harbor area for the ship’s arrival, the governor said.
CASES FROM PREVIOUS CRUISE
Initial word that the vessel would dock in Oakland came late on Saturday from its owner and operator, Princess Cruises. It capped four days of uncertainty for those on the vessel, which the governor said has been linked with 12 coronavirus cases from an earlier voyage to Mexico. One of those, an elderly man from Placer County, California, with underlying health conditions, has since died.
Newsom said public health authorities were monitoring more than 1,500 other California residents who were on that Mexico cruise.
Princess Cruises, a unit of the world’s leading cruise operator, Carnival Corp, is also owner of the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan in February and became for a time the largest concentration of coronavirus cases outside of China, where the outbreak originated. About 700 people aboard that ship became infected, and six have died.
The Grand Princess was first denied entry to San Francisco Bay on Wednesday as it sailed back from Hawaii after state and local health authorities learned that some passengers and crew had developed flu-like symptoms, and that guests from an earlier cruise to Mexico aboard the same ship later tested positive for coronavirus.
Health authorities have said at least two, including the man who died, probably contracted the respiratory virus aboard the vessel.
Newsom had insisted the ship remain at sea until individuals aboard who were sick could be tested, and diagnostic kits were flown to the ocean liner by helicopter on Thursday.
On Friday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, leading the U.S. government response to the coronavirus, announced that 19 crew members and two passengers had tested positive. But the immediate fate of the ship had remained murky until officials revealed their next steps on Sunday.
Newsom praised both Pence and U.S. President Donald Trump for their assistance.
And he shrugged off Trump’s comments last week saying he would prefer Grand Princess passengers remain shipbound for the duration of their quarantine because allowing them back on U.S. soil might end up increasing the number of U.S. coronavirus cases from “one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
The governor, who has frequently clashed with Trump, credited the president for telling him privately, “‘We’re going to do the right thing and you have my support.'” Newsom added: “And everything he said they followed through on.”
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle, Mark Potter and Daniel Wallis)