On the orders of federal health authorities, four passengers on a cruise ship were hospitalized Friday after docking in Bayonne, part of a group of 27 aboard the ship who had recently traveled from China, where a new strain of coronavirus has killed 600 and sickened more than 30,000 others.
During the early morning hours, officials with the Centers for Disease Control boarded the Anthem of the Seas — soon after the mammoth Royal Caribbean cruise liner tied up at the Cape Liberty Cruise Port at the scheduled end of a Caribbean cruise — and screened the group from China for the novel coronavirus. The four were taken in ambulances to an undisclosed local hospital for evaluation, and the other 23 were cleared.
Officials offered little more information about the four, or what had led to their being hospitalized.
But the cruise line issued a statement that filled in some blanks.
“None of the four guests showed any clinical signs or symptoms of coronavirus while they were onboard our ship. One had tested positive onboard for Influenza A. Our records indicate the guests had not been in China since January 26 — 13 days ago,” the statement read.
The CDC has said the said the flu-like disease resulting from infection with what health authorities have labeled 2019-nCoV has a likely incubation period of 14 weeks.
Separately Friday, Royal Caribbean said it would bar Chinese nationals and others from boarding its fleet.
In a statement, Gov. Phil Murphy said the hospital where the four passengers had been taken is following proper infection-control protocols and the risk to New Jersey residents remains low. No cases of the disease have been confirmed in the state.
Earlier this week, a traveler from China was placed under 14-day quarantine after landing at Newark Liberty International Airport. Officials described the traveler as “asymptomatic,” but said the individual fell under the mandatory quarantine protocols because they had been in the central Chinese province at the center of the outbreak on Feb. 4.
According to the World Health Organization’s most recent update, 2019-nCoV has left 637 dead, all but one in China, and sickened 31,481, all but 270 in China — overall, an increase of roughly 10% since the previous day’s update. A dozen people in the United States have been diagnosed with the infection and no one in the U.S. has died.
Miguel Rodriguez was among the 4,000-odd passengers on the Anthem of the Seas. He said he first heard about federal officials hospitalizing the four travelers on the news.
“Oh, it was scary. Because we didn’t find out what was going on,” he said. “We just came out and then we saw ambulances taking people out. Some of them had masks on. We didn’t know if there was something going on inside. They didn’t let us know what was going on.”
Fellow passenger Gloria Leland was concerned about getting sick herself.
“I’m not too happy about it, especially if I end up with it,” she said.
Some passengers complained about lack of notification from Royal Caribbean, especially after socializing with the passengers from China during the cruise.
“We played cards in a room every day with that whole group,” said Mary Potts of Red Lion, P.A.
In its statement, the cruise line said: “We appreciate the CDC’s abundance of caution and their partnership.”
Royal Caribbean also announced Friday that it was barring any passenger that “holds a Chinese, Hong Kong, or Macau passport” from boarding any of its ships, and that the order would last through February. It also plans to bar anyone who has traveled to those places over the last 15 days, as well as any passenger displaying flu-like symptoms.
“We know that these steps are very conservative, and we apologize that they will inconvenience some of our guests,” the statement read. “We regret to have to do this, but it is our responsibility to maintain a safe and healthy environment onboard our ships, as well as in the ports we visit.”
The company said the Anthem of the Seas had been cleared by authorities to depart from Bayonne on its next cruise, but would delay departure until Saturday, when it expected to receive conclusive test results from the CDC about the four passengers that had been hospitalized in New Jersey.
Health experts say passenger ships can be especially susceptible to the spread of diseases borne by sneezing and coughing.
“When you’re in an enclosed setting, the likelihood of these droplets making direct contact or landing on a fomite are much greater, particularly with poor ventilation,” said Dr. Glenn Fennelly, chair of the Department of Pediatrics and Microbiology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
Meanwhile, New Jersey expects to soon receive a shipment of coronavirus test kits from the CDC, according to the state Health Department, which will shorten the time needed to vet a suspected case of the disease. The state’s also set up a quarantine center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, and is screening passengers at Newark Airport, as well as the ports.
The battle against the spread of the disease is being led by federal health authorities.
“We have, CDC, now more than 800 responders working with the support of the U.S. government with our efforts at ports of entry, military installations and state health departments,” said Robert Redfield, director of the CDC.
Health officials advise that anyone who suspects they were exposed should reach out to a family health care provider, and not head to the local emergency room and risk exposing others.
Rodriguez, the Anthem of the Seas passenger, said he was planned a visit to his physician.
“When I get back home, I’m going to go to my doctor and have a checkup,” he said, adding, “I’m just going to check.”