California declares state of emergency as possibly infected cruise ship nears coast

A second Princess Cruises vessel has been asked to idle off the coast of California to test passengers for COVID019 after the Diamond Princess was quarantined off Japan in February. Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI

March 5 (UPI) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Wednesday as a cruise ship with thousands on board, many who may have been exposed to COVID-19, nears the state’s coast.

The declaration follows health officials saying a patient who died in Placer Country on Wednesday after testing positive for the virus was a passenger of a Princess Cruises Vessel from Feb. 11 to 21 on a roundtrip voyage from San Francisco to Mexico. Princess Cruises identified the victim in an email to UPI as a 71-year-old male.

Newsom told reporters during a news conference that following the disembarkation of passengers in San Francisco, the cruise ship went on to Hawaii and was returning to California with an unknown number of passengers and crew suffering from symptoms of COVID-19.

He said of the thousands of people on the ship, 11 passengers and 10 crew were exhibiting symptoms, and test kits will be flown out to the ship in order to diagnose if anyone is infected with the virus.

Princess Cruises said in a statement emailed to UPI that it has been notified by the CDC that the federal health agency was investigating “a small cluster of COVID-19 cases in northern California amongst” its former passengers.

All former passengers of the Mexico trip have been sent a message by the cruise company, Princess Cruises said.

It did not reveal how many passengers were on board the Grand Princess but that 62 passengers of the February trip were on the cruise ship heading for San Francisco from Hawaii.

“In an abundance of caution, these guests and other potential close crew contacts have been asked to remain in their staterooms until screened by our onboard medical tea,” Princess Cruises said.

Newsom told reporters that he’s declaring a state of emergency not only because of the cruise ship but because the patient who died was one of 2,500 passengers on the Grand Princess, of which 50 percent are residents of California, many of whom disembarked from the ship in February.

“We are working very closely with [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and working closely with our healthcare partners up and down the state of California to contact all of the individuals from the manifest,” he said, adding passengers who are not California residents are being tracked down by the CDC.

California, he said, currently has 54 confirmed cases of the virus, including 24 people who were repatriated from either the coronavirus-riddled Diamond Princess cruise ship under quarantine in Japan or Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the global outbreak.

“The State of California is deploying every level of government to help identify cases and slow the spread of this coronavirus,” Newsom said in a statement. “This emergency proclamation will help the state further prepare our communities and our health care system in the event it spreads more broadly.”

California’s first death to COVID-19 brings the death toll in the United States to 11 as Washington recorded another death, its ninth since the outbreak began.

Washington State also recorded 10 new confirmed cases of the virus, raising its total count to 31.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday there are 129 cases of the coronavirus in the United States.

Officials in King County, where many of Washington’s deaths have occurred, are recommending people who are pregnant, the elderly and those with underlying health issues and weakened immune systems to avoid concert venues, conventions, sporting events and crowded social gatherings.

News of the measures came as the U.S. House voted 415-2 to pass a bill providing nearly $8 billion in emergency funding to fight the outbreak after days of intense negotiations. Approval was expected in the Senate by the end of the week followed by prompt approval by President Donald Trump.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who negotiated the funding with House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the measure will provide $7.76 billion to battle the coronavirus.

“This should not be about politics; this is about doing our job to protect the American people from a potential pandemic,” Shelby said in a statement.

The funding was three times the $2.5 billion initially requested by the Trump administration.

The bill includes $7.4 billion in new discretionary spending for vaccine development, research, equipment and state and local health budgets amid the outbreak including more than $400 million to be sent to governments within 30 days with each state receiving no less than $4 million.

“While we all ardently hope that this public health emergency does not worsen, House Democrats will not hesitate to act again if we must augment this funding with more resources,” Lowey said.

After a meeting at the White House with executives from the nation’s largest air carriers, Trump said air travel is safe for “large portions of the world.”

United Airlines on Wednesday said in an email to employees that it would cut flights in the United States and Canada by 10 percent and overseas flights by 20 percent in April, curtailing the flight schedule “in a way that minimizes the impact on our employees and our operation,” CNN reported.

Executives from American, United, Southwest and other airlines briefed Trump and Pence on their procedures for ensuring aircraft are safe and disinfected for passengers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

They urged the administration to reassure the public as ticket sales have slowed globally in recent weeks, and worried travelers have postponed or canceled trips over outbreak fears. Several airlines have grounded flights to Hong Kong, Japan, Milan and other international destinations where the virus has sickened hundreds.

Administration officials also discussed procedures for properly disinfecting planes between flights, as well as tracking passenger travel so that close contacts with infected passengers can be found and monitored for treatment.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also reiterated their belief that earlier travel restrictions for foreign nationals arriving from China and State Department-issued travel warnings for areas of Italy and South Korea have limited the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States. Additionally, the United States started screening all passengers arriving on direct flights from Italy and South Korea on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, several carriers — including American, Delta and United — have waived some ticket change fees in the aftermath of the outbreak, but they only apply to those purchasing tickets this month, and not for those who booked travel months ago for now-canceled vacations or conventions.

Pence on Wednesday said that it appears the elderly are most at risk from the virus and that all nursing home inspection resources usually used to identify abuse and neglect will be redirected exclusively to ensuring compliance with infection control standards.

Meanwhile, New York state officials confirmed 11 cases of COVID-19 after the friend of a 50-year-old man with the disease tested positive along with the friend’s wife and their three children. The 50-year-old man’s wife, two children and a neighbor tested positive earlier.

The 50-year-old, from New Rochelle in Westchester County, is the only one to require hospitalization for the illness, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a press briefing.

New York is one of 13 U.S. states with confirmed cases of the virus.

Cuomo said an initial review of the 50-year-old man’s travels doesn’t suggest any travel to China or other countries at the nexus of the outbreak, so authorities are treating it as a case of person-to-person transmission. Although the man lived outside New York City, he worked as an attorney in Manhattan.

“We will continue working closely with our state partners to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep New Yorkers safe,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

The Westchester patient was first diagnosed at a hospital in the city earlier this week, as the city began conducting rapid testing locally, de Blasio said.

The man’s 20-year-old son, who has also been diagnosed with COVID-19, is a student at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, and he had been symptomatic prior to his father’s hospitalization, officials said. No details on the son’s condition were immediately available.

Yeshiva announced Wednesday it had canceled all in-person graduate courses on the campus and closed its all-boys’ high school. De Blasio said two of the son’s contacts from the Yeshiva campus have been sent to Bellevue Hospital for testing.

Cuomo said about 300 students and faculty from several State University of New York and City University of New York schools studying abroad in high-risk countries will be recalled to New York and quarantined in dorms located throughout the state.

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