March 11, 2020 / 12:40 AM / 19 days ago

Passengers plod off coronavirus-stricken cruise ship in face masks in California

March 10 (Reuters) - Hundreds of travelers who boarded a cruise liner for Hawaii last month in sandals and sunglasses trudged off the coronavirus-stricken ship in face masks at the Port of Oakland, California, on Tuesday, headed to quarantine sites around the country.

The tightly controlled disembarkation began on Monday, hours after the cruise ship Grand Princess arrived at a specially secured terminal across San Francisco Bay from its home port amid cheers from weary passengers who had spent days at sea confined to their staterooms.

By midday Tuesday, nearly 700 passengers wearing surgical masks had left the ship in small groups escorted by personnel dressed in full protective gear to chartered buses.

Addressing a news conference on Tuesday in Sacramento, the state capital, Governor Gavin Newsom said he hoped to finish getting all the roughly 2,400 passengers off the ship within 72 hours.

Princess Cruises, the ship's owner-operator, said 19 crew members who tested positive for the virus "have been deemed asymptomatic" and remain isolated in their cabins.

Plans originally called for all 1,100 crew members, except those requiring immediate medical care, to remain aboard the Grand Princess and depart with the ship when it heads back out of the bay for a two-week quarantine period moored at sea.

But Newsom told reporters that a number of crew members, many from the Philippines, could be repatriated directly to their home countries.

QUARANTINE AT BASES

Among the first people off the ship on Monday were 26 U.S. residents found to require medical attention and taken to nearby hospitals, Newsom said.

All the remaining U.S. passengers will be tested once they reach their destinations at quarantine housing at one of four military bases - two in California and one each in Texas and Georgia.

A group of 232 Canadians, representing the biggest cohort of non-U.S. passengers, were repatriated on Monday, Newsom said.

The Grand Princess was first denied entry to San Francisco Bay last Wednesday as it sailed back from Hawaii when authorities learned some passengers and crew had developed flu-like symptoms, and guests from an earlier cruise to Mexico aboard the same ship had tested positive for coronavirus. Since then, at least 12 coronavirus cases have been linked to the previous Mexico trip.

The ship was kept at sea until diagnostic kits were flown to the ocean liner by helicopter on Thursday to test ill passengers. The 21 positive test results on Friday constituted one of the largest clusters of cases documented in the United States at the time.

But it took authorities until Sunday to decide on a return-to-port strategy and quarantine plan for the ship.

Princess Cruises also owns the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan in February. About 700 people aboard that ship became infected, and six have died, in a crisis that experts said was mishandled by Japanese bureaucrats. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

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