One-fifth of all global ocean cruise ships were infected with coronavirus, leaving at least 2,592 crew and passengers infected and killing at least 65, according to research.
Shocking new data reveals that cases of the deadly virus can be directly linked to at least 54 cruise ships, as they continued to travel the waters while the pandemic ravaged communities on land.
All four of the world’s largest cruise lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises – were struck by outbreaks, as well as several smaller lines.
At least 922 of those infected and 11 who died were crew members working on the ships.
Passengers stranded on board the coronavirus-stricken Grand Princess off the coast of San Francisco in March. New research shows that one-fifth of all global ocean cruise ships were infected with coronavirus, leaving at least 2,592 crew and passengers infected and killing at least 65
The stark findings, collated into a study by the Miami Herald using data from the CDC, cruise companies and passenger testiminies, show that the situation on board ships was far worse than official figures reveal.
It also raises further questions over whether the decision to issue a no-sail order came too light from the lines and the CDC.
As coronavirus cases and deaths increased worldwide, cruise ships fast became hotbeds for the killer disease and several ships were turned away by ports refusing to allow sick patients to disembark.
The study shows that being stuck on board a cruise ship was one of the most dangerous places to be as the pandemic worsened.
‘Here’s a situation where you have a global pandemic, and you’re running a business where you essentially have self-contained environments where this disease can proliferate quickly,’ Dr. Roderick King, CEO of the Florida Institute for Health Innovation, told the Herald.
King accused the big cruise lines of ‘closing your eyes’ to the dangers as they continued to pursue voyages as the crisis ramped up.
‘By closing your eyes to it, it’s not only detrimental to your business model and ability to bounce back, but it has huge implications on the broader population,’ he said.
The cruise industry has come under fire for its slow response amid the pandemic as it continued to send ships out to sea even after a series of outbreaks on board and repeated warnings from health experts that the high numbers of people in contained spaces on the ships can make them breeding grounds for the virus.
It was early February when the doomed Diamond Princess was ordered to stay at sea off the coast of Japan for two weeks after a deadly outbreak struck passengers and crew.
In the worst cruise ship crisis so far, 712 people tested positive and 13 died after being on board the ship.
Passenger Steven Smith goes through a health screening after leaving the Grand Princess cruise ship in California on March 11. Shocking new data reveals that cases of the deadly virus can be directly linked to at least 54 cruise ships
Grand Princess passengers wait to leave the ship.All four of the world’s largest cruise lines – Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises – were struck by outbreaks, as well as several smaller lines
But despite the warning signs, on March 7 it was still business as usual with companies citing extra cleaning measures were being taken and Vice President Mike Pence telling Americans it was ‘safe for healthy Americans to travel.’
The next day – around a month after the Diamond Princess outbreak – the CDC issued guidelines that Americans do not travel on cruise ships.
Several ships still set sail after this time, with the Herald analysis showing that these risky moves led to another eight outbreaks on ships, including 309 cases and 3 deaths.
On March 11 – the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic – around 550,000 passengers were on cruises.
On March 13, more than 50 cruise lines finally announced they were suspending operations to and from US ports for 30 days and the CDC issued a no-sail order in US waters the following day.
Even then, cruise ships already at sea were still able to continue their voyages beyond this date.
It emerged last month that some companies had even deliberately downplayed the risks of coronavirus to customers in order to not have to issue refunds to worried passengers.
The Florida Attorney General launched an investigation in March into Norwegian Cruise Line after leaked emails revealed managers were giving sales staff phrases to tell customers dismissing the risk of contracting coronavirus on board ships to try to flog more holidays.
The emails, leaked to Miami New Times by a whistleblower, showed that staff in the Miami headquarters were being told to say phrases like: ‘the only thing you need to worry about for your cruise is do you have enough sunscreen,’ and ‘the coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise’.
Rescue workers push a strether with a patient from Zaandam Cruise Ship at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. Cruise ships fast became hotbeds for the killer disease and several ships were turned away by ports refusing to allow sick patients to disembark
The Zandaam. Companies continue to downplay risks, with Carnival CEO Arnold Donald saying passengers ‘are at far less risk in a cruise environment than other environments’
Even now the major companies have downplayed the risk on board their ships.
Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company where 17 percent of ships have been infected, said last week that ‘very few’ ships have been affected by coronavirus and said passengers ‘are at far less risk in a cruise environment than other environments.’
‘We have really high standards on cruise ships in dealing with any kind of health risk,’ he said in an interview with CNBC on April 15.
‘You don’t go to many places where you have medical records, where there is temperature scanning, there’s lots of deep cleaning going on often and all the time.’
Passengers on board the ships tell a different story.
One passenger who set sail on Carnival’s Costa Luminosa cruise in Fort Lauderdale on March 5 said the company refused to give out refunds before the voyage despite the increased risks so he and his wife decided to go ahead with their holiday.
Emilio Hernandez told the Herald three days into the cruise a sick passenger had to leave the ship and be hospitalized in Puerto Rico with COVID-19.
In the worst cruise ship crisis so far, 712 people tested positive on the Diamond Princess after Japanese authorities imposed a two-week lockdown in Yokohama
A passenger waves as she walks with others on the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February. Japan was widely criticised for its handling of the ship, with one disease expert saying the quarantine was ‘completely inadequate’ after viewing the conditions on board
The ship was then refused to dock in Antigua and people were kept on board the virus cluster, which resulted in four passengers and one crew member dying.
Hernandez, 51, and his wife Barbara, 46, both caught coronavirus and his wife was hospitalized before recovering.
‘If the cruise ships don’t learn now, how many more people are going to die?’ Hernandez told the Herald.
‘They need to be held accountable for what they’ve done to their passengers and their crews. They decided that taking their asset back to Italy was more important than my health and the health of all the passengers. That decision has cost people their lives.’
One of the fatalities was Tom Sheehan, 69, who also boarded the ship in Fort Lauderdale on March 5 and died on March 30.
‘If the ship had told everyone what was going on, my dad and stepmom would have gotten off in Puerto Rico and flown home,’ his son Kevin Sheehan told the Herald. ‘But they didn’t tell them. So they stayed on the ship.’
Several crew members have also been killed after they were left with no choice but to keep turning up for work on the floating deathtraps.
Pujiyoko, 27, a Royal Caribbean housekeeper from Indonesia, became the youngest person in South Florida at the time to die from the virus on April 12.
Fears first mounted for cruise ship passengers and crew in February when in the worst cruise ship crisis so far, hundreds tested positive on the Diamond Princess after Japanese authorities imposed a two-week lockdown in Yokohama.
Passengers were confined to their cabins during the lockdown but several countries eventually lost patience with Japan and airlifted their citizens home.
Japan was widely criticised for its handling of the ship, with one disease expert saying the quarantine was ‘completely inadequate’ after viewing the conditions on board.
Japan had initially impounded the ship after a passenger who left the ship in Hong Kong in January subsequently tested positive.
At least 13 people have died after they were taken to hospital from the doomed vessel and 712 have tested positive.
Weeks later another Princess ship was struck by an outbreak, when two passengers and 19 crew members on the Grand Princess cruise ship tested positive for coronavirus in early March.
The ship docked in Oakland, California, on March 9 with 3,500 on board and people were repatriated and sent to army bases for quarantine.
At least 100 cases have been linked to the Grand Princess and at least two deaths.
In March, the Holland America Zaandam was stuck at sea after it set sail on March 7 and people began showing symptoms of coronavirus.
The ship was turned away by several ports in Latin America and Florida.
The Zandaam and its sister ship the Rotterdam – which had met the infected ship and taken healthy patients on board – were finally allowed to dock in Florida on April after Donald Trump waded into the matter.
Four people had died and more than 190 had flu-like symptoms by the time passengers and crew were allowed to disembark.
The CDC has since extended its halting of cruise voyages until late July.