Nearly 1,700 passengers on a Royal Caribbean ‘cruise-to-nowhere’ from Singapore remained confined in their cabins for more than 14 hours on Wednesday after a COVID-19 case was detected on board, forcing the ship back to port.
All passengers aboard the Quantum of the Seas vessel had cleared a mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for the virus up to three days before the four-day cruise started on Monday.
Authorities said close contacts of the patient among the 1,680 guests and 1,148 crew members on board have so far tested negative and that all passengers must isolate in their rooms as contact tracing continued on Wednesday afternoon.
The patient, an 83-year-old male, had reported to the ship’s medical centre with diarrhoea and a subsequent onboard test revealed the infection. He was taken to hospital on Wednesday after the ship returned to port.
Other guests, who authorities say may be able to leave the ship on Wednesday evening, were awoken with the news of the infection in the early hours.
“I was like: ‘there it goes, the worst fear has happened’,” said passenger Melvin Chew, a 31-year-old business development manager, who said he learned about the infected guest via an announcement on the ship’s tannoy around 3 a.m. (1900 GMT Tuesday).
The Quantum of the Seas returned to Singapore at 8 a.m. local time (0000 GMT), and as of 5 p.m. passengers were still being asked to isolate in their cabins. All passengers will undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing before leaving the terminal.
The patient, wearing a full-length white protective suit, was escorted down the ship’s gangway to a waiting ambulance just after 2 p.m.
Shortly after, the ship’s captain told passengers over the tannoy that the ship was being deep-cleaned and that a further update would come around 7 p.m.
“We do understand that this is not how you planned to spend your cruise and again ladies and gentlemen, I am terribly sorry,” the captain said in a recording heard by Reuters.
The ‘cruise-to-nowhere’ by Royal Caribbean is one of its first sailings since the company halted global operations in March due to the coronavirus.
The sailing in waters off Singapore is open only to Singapore residents and makes no stops.
The cruises are a part of Singapore’s plans to revive its tourism industry that has been battered due to the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 67.7 million people globally and killed 1,548,575.
Singapore, which has had just over 58,000 cases and 29 deaths, has been reporting less than a handful of daily infections in recent weeks.
Part of the precautions for the resumption of cruises in Singapore involved pre-departure testing within 48 to 72 hours prior to boarding and for guests to carry an electronic contact tracing device, wear masks and social distance at all times.
“I really don’t know how the patient has gotten it,” said another passenger Muhammad Rezal Ramli, 40, who had taken the cruise with his two young children.
Infectious diseases experts said there could be many reasons why the patient got through pre-departure screenings.
They said the PCR test may have been a false negative or did not pick up fragments of an old virus, or the patient may have been incubating at the time or was infected between the test and boarding.
“It is a reality check that the current tests are not perfect,” said Paul Tambyah, President of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection.
The infected case’s close contacts will be placed in quarantine or health surveillance, Singapore’s health ministry said in an advisory sent to passengers.
Others will need to monitor their health, while continuing regular activities including going to school or work, and undergo a swab test at the end of a 14-day monitoring period.