Cruise Ship Briefly Quarantined in Coronavirus Scare

Passengers wait for news aboard Costa Smeralda at Civitavecchia, Italy, Jan. 30 (image via social media)

Published Jan 30, 2020 7:55 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Thursday, health authorities at the port of Civitavecchia briefly quarantined 6,000 cruise passengers while testing one individual for the possibility of a coronavirus infection. A 54-year-old woman from Macau developed flu-like symptoms while on board the cruise ship Costa Smeralda, and the vessel's medical staff alerted Italian officials on the outside chance that it could be the new virus. 

"As soon as the suspected case was detected, the medical team on board immediately activated all the relevant health procedures to promptly isolate and manage clinical conditions," Costa Cruises told media in a statement. 

Multiple passengers on board Costa Smeralda took to social media to document the experience, and most described a state of mild suspense during the delay. 

"I'm on the Costa Smeralda, people are really very calm but there are some with nervous or anxious people, not because of the coronavirus but because they don't know when they can leave," wrote one passenger on Twitter. 

The incident ultimately proved to be a false alarm. In the afternoon, Costa Cruises announced that Italian health officials had diagnosed the passenger with the common flu. The ship will resume its normal Mediterranean itinerary on Friday. 

Guests who were scheduled to disembark Costa Smeralda on Thursday will be allowed to depart the ship or to remain on board overnight, at their discretion, Costa said. Guests who were scheduled to board the vessel on Thursday will be accommodated in hotels near the port and will embark on Friday.

World health emergency

On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a world health emergency. The virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last month, has since infected nearly 8,000 people in China and caused 213 confirmed deaths. 

Authorities around the world have moved to contain the virus' spread through additional checks at ports of entry. The restrictions primarily apply to air travel: Italy has blocked all flights arriving from China altogether; Lufthansa, British Airways and Air Canada have suspended direct flights to and from Chinese cities; and United Airlines and American Airlines have canceled hundreds of nonstop flights to China due to "declining demand." 

In addition, five cruise lines have announced cancelations or alterations for itineraries calling in China. This list includes Royal Caribbean, which has canceled three sailings for the Shanghai-based Spectrum of the Seas, the largest vessel in the Chinese market. The decision will have an effect on annual earnings in the range of $0.10 per share, the company said, and more if travel in China is disrupted for an extended period. 

More cases than SARS

The Wuhan coronavirus has already affected more people in China than the SARS epidemic of 2002-3, but early indications suggest that it is less lethal than the previous contagion. “Similar to SARS, most of the mortality is occurring among people with other illnesses and among the elderly," said Dr. Alex Greninger of the University of Washington, who heads a lab studying the new coronavirus. Multiple research teams in government and academia are working on vaccine candidates for the new virus, and first clinical trials are expected within several months. 

While it is new, the Wuhan coronavirus has had a far smaller impact to date than influenza - a familiar virus which has already killed 8,200 people in the United States over the course of this flu season. Worldwide, the flu kills as many as 650,000 people every year, according to the World Health Organization.