'Everything is a mess': Westerdam passengers in limbo again after passenger testing positive for coronavirus prompts countries to not let them 'fly through'
Associated Press/Heng Sinith
- The brief moments of relief experienced by more than 2,000 passengers aboard the Westerdam when they disembarked in Cambodia has been cut short.
- These crew members and guests had spent 13 days at sea after being denied entry by five ports amid an escalating coronavirus crisis.
- An American passenger who departed from Phnom Penh was stopped by thermal scanners in Malaysia, where she tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalized.
- This development resulted in hundreds of Westerdam passengers still on the docked ship and others at a hotel in Phnom Penh being left in limbo once again.
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The feeling of relief experienced by more than 2,000 passengers aboard the MS Westerdam - which was refused entry by five ports due to escalating coronavirus fears - was shortlived.
The cruise ship departed from Hong Kong on February 1 only to be stranded at sea for nearly two weeks as Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, the US territory of Guam, and Thailand turned it away. There was much ado when the Westerdam was finally allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Everyone was asked to fill out health questionnaires and 20 passengers tested negative for COVID-19. As of Tuesday, the virus has infected nearly 73,000 people and killed nearly 1,870, according to Beijing's National Health Commission.
The Westerdam's 1,455 guests and 802 crew members were slated to go ashore and take charter flights to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, where they would fly home from. Holland America Line, which operates the Westerdam and is owned by Carnival Corp., was to arrange and pay for the travel of everyone on board.
But a snafu brought everything to a halt.
An American woman, who tested positive for COVID-19, was among 1,000-plus passengers who disembarked the ship on Saturday, took flights to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, and then headed to different destinations across the globe.
She snagged officials' attention at the thermal scanners at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport, according to The New York Times. Holland America Line said in a statement to Insider on Tuesday that the woman has been hospitalized in stable condition, while her traveling companion tested negative for coronavirus.
A 'turning point' in the fight to control the spread of COVID-19
Many passengers, who left the Westerdam alongside her, went to local sightseeing spots and traveled internationally, with some en route to the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands, on Sunday. Experts told The Times that this could mark a "turning point" in the battle to contain the coronavirus and the best way forward would be to track down every passenger and put them in a two-week quarantine.
Holland America Line explained that 255 guests and 747 crew members are awaiting clearance aboard the Westerdam. This process is likely to "take several days," the company wrote in a statement.
Another group of people - their number is unknown - are currently staying at a Phnom Penh hotel, where they have been screened for the coronavirus. The first 406 results have been negative, Holland America Line said, adding: "Cleared guests may travel home, and arrangements are being made for those guests."
Holland America Line is working with officials from Cambodia, Malaysia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. Although it remains unknown when the remaining passengers will be able to head home, the company said no one else who is onboard the ship or who has been put up in a hotel has tested positive for coronavirus.
"We are in close coordination with some of the leading health experts from around the world," Dr. Grant Tarling, chief medical officer for Holland America Line, said in the statement. "These experts are working with the appropriate national health authorities to investigate and follow-up with any individuals who may have come in contact with the guest."
A breeding ground for 'confusion,' 'chaos,' and 'frustration'
Holland America Line also pointed to the steps it had taken while people were still on board, including checking each person's temperature and having them fill out a health screening questionnaire. Officials in Cambodia also reviewed the passengers' passports to ensure that one had traveled through mainland China for at least 14 days prior to the Westerdam cruise's kick off. All tests came back negative, it stressed.
"During the voyage, there was no indication of COVID-19 on the ship," the statement said. " The guest who tested positive did not visit the ship's medical center to report any symptoms of illness. An additional 20 guests who reported to the medical center during the cruise were tested by health officials for COVID-19, and all results were confirmed negative."
Passenger Elly Chybowski, who is at the Sokha Hotel in Phnom Penh with her husband, Timothy, told USA Today that guests receive two updates a day and also have the support of the local US embassy staff.
"Today they had posted that several more countries will not let us fly through," she said.
When passengers' travel arrangements are finalized, they will be given a letter that discloses their test results. No one at the hotel has tested positive for coronavirus, but the anxious passengers "have been told not to leave the hotel in case we are assigned a flight," Chybowski said to USA Today.
Steve Muth, of Michigan, described a similar experience to USA Today, noting, "Everything is a mess right now."
Traveling with his wife, their daughter and her boyfriend, Muth recalled being told by Holland America Line that their tickets were ready. But news of the one ill patient further changed the course of their trip.
They're still waiting, Muth said, adding, "(It's) just a lot of confusion, chaos, [and] frustration."
From Cambodian revelry to a 'terrible and frightening' coronavirus test
Passenger Christina Kerby, who chronicled the goings-on aboard the Westerdam, said on Twitter that passengers were welcomed to Cambodia with flowers, traditional scarves, and even a visit from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
After reaching the hotel, though, the tone of her tweets morphed, going from observations about seafood and beer to being in limbo once again as she was restricted to her room.
She also apologized for traveling within Cambodia before knowing that one of her fellow Westerdam passengers had tested positive for COVID-19, and described her own "terrible and frightening" coronavirus screening, during which she "panicked and screamed."
The otherwise upbeat Kerby, who is passing time by searching for Pokemon for her children, isn't even home yet, but admitted to already experiencing the stigma associated with the coronavirus. Her husband echoed the sentiment.
We're wearing traditional checkered scarves that were a gift from Cambodia. I'm in tears, the show of support is overwhelming. pic.twitter.com/TgxD3pxd0S- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 13, 2020
Busses have arrived to transport the first group of passengers off the #Westerdam. They're carrying flowers. I don't think the captain has slept for days.- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 14, 2020
Last view of the #Westerdam as I head for the airport. I'm leaving a little piece of my heart behind on the ship with the wonderful staff and crew who made this adventure so memorable and will be continuing on their journey without us. So long and thanks for all the muesli! ❤️- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 15, 2020
We've been asked by the Ministry of Health of Cambodia to stay in our rooms at the hotel for now pending further health screenings and there are some passengers still on board the ship who've been told that off boarding is being halted. That's all I know.- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 15, 2020
You haven't lived til you've been swabbed for COVID-19. #westerdam passengers at the hotel in Phnom Penh are being tested. Fingers crossed for good health for everyone.- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 16, 2020
I left the hotel for a few hours on Saturday before I knew the extent of our situation. I deeply regret if I've inadvertently put anyone at risk.- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 17, 2020
I felt really bad for the kids - there was a little seven year old that heard her mom scream and she totally lost it. Had to be held down but in the end she was braver than I was.- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 17, 2020
We had someone living with us back home who moved out today because she's scared of catching #COVID19 from me. I'm scared too, there's so much we don't know about this disease. But it also shows the power of stigma. I'm not even home yet, and don't know when I will be.- Christina Kerby (@ChristinaKerby) February 18, 2020
A new experience I'm having is the stigma at home. Many people in my orbit (not all) have asked me when she's coming back. After a little bit of conversation, it's pretty obvious that they're not asking how she's doing. Or how I'm doing.- Tony Martin-Vegue (@tdmv) February 18, 2020