Cruise Ship Hit by Coronavirus Pulls Into Oakland Port

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The Grand Princess cruise ship sails under the Bay Bridge en route to the Port of Oakland on Monday, March 9, 2020. The ship, which idled for days off the coast, had at least 21 passengers who tested positive for coronavirus. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated 5:30 p.m.

A cruise ship carrying at least 21 people infected with the coronavirus arrived in Oakland on Monday, after idling for days off the coast of San Francisco, as federal and state officials prepared to transfer its thousands of passengers to military bases for quarantine or return them to their home countries.

The Grand Princess pulled into the Port of Oakland with more than 3,500 people aboard. Passengers lining the balconies waved and some left the cabins where they had been in isolation to go on deck as the ship entered the port.

As it sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, passenger Karen Schwartz Dever said “everyone was hollering and clapping as we entered the harbor.”

The 23 people who needed acute medical care had been taken off the ship by late Monday afternoon, but it was not clear how many of them had tested positive for the virus, said Shawn Boyd, a spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.

Tents begin to appear as workers tend to passengers disembarking from the Grand Princess cruise ship at the Port of Oakland on March 9, 2020. The roughly 3,500 people on the ship were stranded off the coast of San Francisco for days due to a coronavirus outbreak on board. (Josh Edelson /AFP/Getty Images)

Live TV footage showed at least one passenger, an older man wearing a face mask, climbing onto a stretcher and being lifted into the back of an ambulance. Officials have said the unloading will take up to three days.

“Our intent is to basically disembark about half the passengers today. Everyone will be screened initially today," said Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Services.

Workers wearing gloves and yellow protective gear erected a large tent by a platform where passengers were disembarking, and two tents displaying Canadian flags were also on the tarmac. At least 20 buses and five ambulances waited. Canada and the UK were among the countries sending chartered flights to take home citizens.

The unloading will take up to three days, officials said.

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U.S. passengers will be flown or bused from the port — chosen for its proximity to an airport and a military base — to bases in California, Texas and Georgia for testing and a 14-day quarantine. The ship is carrying people from 54 countries, and foreigners will be whisked home.

About 1,100 crew members, 19 of whom have tested positive for coronavirus, or COVID-19, will be quarantined and treated aboard the ship, which will dock elsewhere, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Newsom and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf sought to reassure people that none of the cruise ship passengers would be exposed to the public before completing the quarantine. Officials were trying to decide where the ship and its crew would go next.

“That ship will turn around — and they are currently assessing appropriate places to bring that quarantined ship — but it will not be here in the San Francisco Bay,” Newsom said Sunday.

The Grand Princess cruise ship docks at the Port of Oakland on Monday afternoon, as medical teams prepare to treat and transport passengers. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The ship is stationed at an unused dock and will affect regular operations at the port, which is one of the nation's busiest, said Port of Oakland spokesman Mike Zampa.

“We are confident in the measures that the state and federal government have taken,” he said. “They've cordoned off the area, they've put a perimeter fence, they're allowing no one in who doesn't belong there. With this, you won't see any of our employees or stakeholders within a mile or so of it.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the disease. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where it first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

The Grand Princess cruise ship heads under the Golden Gate Bridge to the Port of Oakland on Monday. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In an effort to stop the virus' spread, Italy will impose travel restrictions and other strict public health measures nationwide starting Tuesday.

The combination of coronavirus fears and plunging oil prices sent stocks on Wall Street plummeting Monday.

The virus has infected 600 people in the United States — including the director of the agency that runs the airports in New York and New Jersey — and at least 26 have died, most in Washington state. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said communities will need to start thinking about canceling large gatherings, closing schools and letting more employees work from home, as many companies have done in the wake of the recent outbreak in the Seattle area.

A growing number of universities have begun online-only courses, including the University of Washington, Stanford University and Columbia University. UC Berkeley also announced it would suspend most in-person classes, beginning on Tuesday.

The Elk Grove Unified School District — the largest school district in Northern California, with 64,000 students — canceled classes for a week when it was discovered a family in the district was exposed to the virus. Georgia’s fourth-largest school district, which has more than 93,000 students, closed its schools for at least one day after a teacher at two middle schools was confirmed to have coronavirus.

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The Grand Princess had been held off the coast since Wednesday because of evidence that it was the breeding ground for infections tied to a previous voyage.

Passengers from the previous voyage have tested positive in California and other states. Six Canadians who were on the Grand Princess from Feb. 11 to 21 were also confirmed to have the virus.

Current passenger Laurie Miller, of San Jose, said she and her husband were told that anyone who was getting off Monday had already received a written notice and luggage tags.

“Not us!" she said in a message. “This is an absolute circus.”

A woman gestures as other passengers look on from aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship, operated by Princess Cruises, while it maintained a holding pattern about 25 miles off the coast of San Francisco, on Sunday. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

“At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that we’re dealing with people,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, which is helping to transfer some ship passengers onto planes at the airport. “It’s important that we not lose sight that these are fellow human beings, that they need our help, and that they want to get home to their loved ones.”

The State Department warned against travel on cruise ships because of “increased risk of infection of COVID-19 in a cruise ship environment."

Another Princess ship, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined for two weeks in Yokohama, Japan, last month because of the virus. Ultimately, about 700 of the 3,700 people aboard became infected in what experts pronounced a public health failure, with the vessel essentially becoming a floating germ factory.

KQED's Sara Hossaini and Alex Emslie contributed reporting.

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