HONG KONG (Bloomberg): Passengers stuck on a cruise ship being quarantined in Hong Kong are beginning to worry that lax controls on the boat and a lack of information puts them at risk of being exposed to the deadly coronavirus.
"We are in quarantine, but everyone is still walking around," Edgar Chan, 28, said using WhatsApp.
The software engineer, his sister and their parents have been quarantined on the World Dream vessel since Feb 5, after it turned back from a planned four-day cruise to Taiwan. There's little information about what to expect or how to protect themselves, he said.
"I am concerned about that. We don't know much about what will happen."
Passengers on the ship floating off Hong Kong have been biding their time with mahjong games, buffets and deck exercises. That contrasts with more aggressive controls for a boat in a similar situation in Japan, where health officials and Carnival Corp have imposed strict isolation on thousands of passengers aboard the Diamond Princess off Yokohama.
Hong Kong authorities are examining more than 1,800 passengers and an equal number of crew on the Dream Cruises ship.
The boat was quarantined after passengers from the Chinese mainland who boarded from Jan 19 to 24 tested positive for coronavirus. The number of cases has now jumped to eight from three.
The ship's operator said on Friday (Feb 7) it's contacting 206 passengers who disembarked in Hong Kong on Jan 24 and may have been exposed to those who tested positive. No coronavirus cases have been detected among those currently on board so far.
Dream Cruises, a brand under Genting Cruise Lines, said it was extending dining service hours "for traffic diversion and crowd control", and making it easier for passengers to stay in their rooms, by offering free in-room dining, more movies and other services.
The company said earlier this week it was conducting temperature screening of all guests and crew members coming aboard and enhanced disinfection protocols.
From Hong Kong to Yokohama to New Jersey, authorities are grappling with how to handle thousands of cruise passengers who may have been exposed to the deadly virus.
Denying cruise ships entry to ports and quarantines are the latest stepped-up efforts by governments to protect their citizens as the coronavirus continues to spread, with the number of infections rising to more than 35,000 and deaths at 724.
Preventing passengers potentially exposed to the respiratory virus from disembarking protects those onshore. But that leaves cruise operators and health authorities to deal with thousands of passengers who may have been exposed to the virus.
In New Jersey, more than two dozen Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd passengers were screened for coronavirus on Friday and four were transferred to an area hospital - the first such incident at a US port and the latest to roil the tourism industry.
Some Hong Kong residents aboard the World Dream vessel have reached out to local lawmaker Helena Wong, anxious about the lack of information, drug prescriptions running out and whether infected passengers may unwittingly expose others because there are no restrictions of movement on the boat.
The Democratic Party, of which Wong is a member, has set up two hotlines for Hong Kong residents stuck on either quarantined vessel to call for help.
"They get very little information from the cruise company or the government," Wong said of the liner quarantined in Hong Kong.
"It's unacceptable to keep them on the cruise but not carry out isolation. If they're lucky, they may not have any reported cases. If they are not lucky, it may be very disastrous with everyone in close contact and moving around."
Even with stricter controls, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus among the 3,700 passengers aboard a cruise vessel in Yokohama has been increasing.
On Saturday, the tally of those with infections rose to 64 from 61 a day earlier, according to Takamasa Kojima, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. The ship is being isolated at the port and is the biggest centre of infection outside of China.
Japan has banned a separate cruise ship - the Westerdam - from berthing in the country, saying a person on board was suspected of having the virus. The operator, Carnival's Holland America, said there were no known cases aboard the Westerdam and the ship wasn't in quarantine.
Daniel Lam, on board the World Dream with his girlfriend and her parents, is among the concerned passengers. He thinks the boat is too crowded, with passengers gathering in public spaces to eat food brought from the buffet.
"The thing that worries me the most is that we have to read the news to know what's happening on the boat," said the 26-year-old Lam.
"No one told us the ship carried coronavirus patients. No one told us the crew who served us are the same crew on the trip with those patients. And now no one tells us what to expect next."
Hong Kong's Department of Health said on Friday that all respiratory samples taken from crew members and passengers earlier have tested negative. Checkups on the ship are still underway, it said. One crew member was reported to have developed respiratory symptoms on Friday afternoon, and that person's results are pending.
Chan said he has noticed crew on the World Dream more frequently disinfecting and cleaning floors and wiping down surfaces in the last couple of days. Still, he's not taking any chances.
He and his family have been mostly sticking to their two rooms, except for meals in the dining hall and an occasional dash to the deck for some fresh air - with masks.
But passengers on board have been mingling on deck for exercises and strolls. The mahjong tables were busy on Friday morning, but appeared closed in the evening, while the sports court was open in the afternoon. Other activities, such as rock climbing and the pool, have been closed, said Chan.
Chan said he felt a bit of sore throat and reported it on a health questionnaire that was handed out by Hong Kong health authorities. He was swabbed, but hasn't gotten the results back. He said he's not too concerned and has kept busy the last few days dialling in for video conferences and other meetings at work.
"I will not be surprised if they announced we will be quarantined for 14 days," said Chan. "I wish the government would have their decision sooner. Then we will know what to expect." - Bloomberg