'I don't feel safe at all.' As cruise ships sail on, crews fear COVID-19 infection

©Miami Herald

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MIAMI — A crew member on the Costa Luminosa knew something was wrong when an ambulance arrived on the pier in Puerto Rico March 8 and left with two passengers. Elderly passengers are routinely evacuated at port stops when they become ill. But in the middle of a global pandemic, this incident felt different.

That same day, the U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned all Americans against cruising, citing the increased risk of COVID-19 infection on cruise ships.

Over the following 11 days, the situation on board worsened. Three sick passengers were offloaded in the Canaries; dozens were reported sick when the ship docked in Marseille, France, on Thursday.

For crew still working as the ship crossed the Atlantic, the situation became ever more dangerous as hundreds of crew members continued to clean the ship and serve passengers. It wasn’t until seven days after that Puerto Rico visit — and four days before the ship arrived in France — that Costa Cruises isolated passengers and provided crew members with masks that they had been asking for, according to passengers and crew. Costa is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp.

The ship is now docked in Savona, Italy. To date, nearly 40 people on the ship have tested positive for COVID-19, and two have died, including one of the people offloaded in Puerto Rico more than two weeks ago. Hundreds of crew members remain on board, and at least nine of them have tested positive, a spokesperson for the company confirmed. Those nine were hospitalized on Tuesday, according to Italian media.

As the number of people infected on cruise ships continues to climb each day, cruise companies are still downplaying the risk of COVID-19 transmission at sea.

“Cruise ships are not a source for coronavirus,” said Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald in an interview with Axios that aired on HBO on Sunday. “We have hundreds of cruise ships out there. Very few had cases on them. … A cruise ship is not a riskier environment.”

The CDC has released evidence to the contrary. A report from the agency published Monday found that approximately 200 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. across 15 states were confirmed to be returned cruise travelers from Feb. 3-March 13, accounting for approximately 17% of total reported U.S. cases at that time. More than 25 cruise ship voyages have had confirmed cases of COVID-19, and at least 10 deaths have been linked to cruise ship travel.

Again, the agency warned Monday: “All persons should defer all cruise travel worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Despite the warning and a forced 30-day hiatus on U.S. cruising, thousands of people remain working on cruise ships during the pandemic. Unable to comply with “stay at home” orders, they worry cruise companies aren’t doing enough to protect them from the virus on board.

The Costa Luminosa crew member, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, is desperate to leave the ship.

While docked in Italy, managers asked the crew to disinfect the cabins of those who have had the disease using a checklist with to-dos such as placing bedding in biohazard bags and wiping down door handles with disinfectant, according to a cleaning checklist provided to the Miami Herald.

The most recent CDC report on cruise ship transmission found that traces of the coronavirus remained on a variety of surfaces inside cabins of infected passengers up to 17 days after cabins were vacated on the Diamond Princess, the first cruise ship to be quarantined in Japan in early February. Scientists are still researching whether those traces have the ability to infect others after such a long time.

“We will get infected, every day more crew members are getting sick,” he said. “Every 20 minutes you hear the ambulance from the streets. … We work nervous and sad.”

Costa Cruises said passengers and crew will disembark by Wednesday, to proceed to land-based isolation in Italy or in their home countries, leaving the ship with around 100 crew members on board.

The pandemic has turned housekeepers, waiters and maintenance workers into quarantine caregivers on ships trying to find ports that will accept them. Healthy workers on ships that have already disembarked all passengers are stuck as flights get repeatedly canceled. Thousands of crew members are still isolated in their cabins on board ships after being exposed to the virus while working.

Nearly 2,000 crew members are isolated in single cabins on board two cruise ships stranded in the Caribbean: the Costa Favolosa and the Costa Magica. All passengers have disembarked, and at least four guests tested positive for COVID-19, but no country has so far allowed the ships to let crews disembark. The ships are on their way to Cuba in hopes of docking and repatriating crew members there, a spokesperson for the company said via email.

In a plea for help on Facebook, a crew member on the Costa Favoloso wrote on Thursday that the managers on board were not allowing crew members to use masks, and the ship was operating as normal despite what he estimated was 10%-20% of the restaurant crew with flulike symptoms.

“We are still working now without social distancing policy in our cabin, we are still exposed to those who has symptoms already,” he wrote. “We are still doing the Normal Schedule like nothing happen … Pray for our safety and hoping that we can see our family soon without the virus running in our body.”

Since his Facebook post on Thursday, the entire crew has been confined to individual cabins, except for deck and engine crew members who are responsible for essential operations.

Four Costa Favolosa workers and two Costa Magica workers have already disembarked; the company did not respond to a request for comment about the reason for the crew members’ departure from the ships. A crew member on the Favolosa said the captain announced that two of the disembarked crew have tested positive.

The company has lifted its normal crew fees for internet.

“The medical situation on board is constantly monitored by the medical staff and is currently under control,” a Costa spokesperson said in a statement.

Another Carnival Corp. ship, the Holland America Line Zaandam ship, is still looking for a port that will accept it. Seventy-seven people on board, including 47 crew members, have reported flulike symptoms, the company said.

Chile turned the ship away on March 21, and it began the long journey to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, set to arrive on March 30 with 1,243 passengers and 586 crew on board. Broward County is still deciding whether to allow the ship to dock.

Thousands of passengers have disembarked into cities around the world since the industry opted to cease sailing on March 13. But many crew members remain trapped on ships that are docked in ports.

A crew member from the Philippines aboard the MSC Meraviglia and his co-workers have been waiting to go home since the cruise ship docked in Miami on March 15. A Canadian passenger tested positive for COVID-19 after getting off the ship in Miami on March 8. Twelve crew members who were exposed to the sick passenger were released from a 14-day cabin quarantine Monday morning, MSC Cruises said.

Every day, the crew member and his colleagues prepare to leave the ship for good, only to have their flights canceled. He is not allowed to get off the ship and visit Miami. He worries about how he will support himself when he gets home.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “And stressed cause I can’t help myself thinking about (my family) and same time thinking about our situation here.”

Crew members on the MSC Seaside say they are in a similar limbo. Both ships are anchored just off the coast of Miami Beach, as the company tries to figure out where to take them next, a spokesperson said via email.

Across the globe, the MSC Fantasia ship docked in Lisbon, Portugal, offloaded two passengers there Sunday who tested positive for the virus, according to the company.

Two crew members heard about one positive test from the Portugal broadcast news hours before the company informed them on Monday.

“We are very upset,” one said. “We got this information late, at 9 o’clock, but TV already inform long time before.”

Another crew member said managers began to take the temperatures of the crew about four days ago. On Tuesday, crew members received masks and gloves and were told to practice social distancing. Every other chair in the crew mess hall has tape over it, requiring crew members to eat with distance between them. But the line to get temperatures taken Tuesday became a large crowd, violating those guidelines.

“I’m not sure this can ensure that we are safe,” the crew member said. “I don’t feel safe at all.”

A spokesperson for MSC Cruises said MSC Fantasia has crew members in precautionary isolation because of potential exposure to passengers who tested positive, but declined to say how many.

“All crew members are in single cabins, receive regular health checks for the duration of their precautionary isolation and are treated in line with international guidelines as well as the ship’s COVID-19 protocol,” the spokesperson said.

In Italy, one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic, Costa Cruises said the hundreds of crew members and passengers still on board the Costa Luminosa are considered close contacts of the disease.

The sister of a 27-year-old utility worker from the Philippines said via Facebook messenger that she worries that Italy’s health system is too overwhelmed to care for her brother and the other crew members.

“He feels so helpless,” she said.

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©2020 Miami Herald