Community Voices / Safe on a ‘plague’ ship in the time of COVID-19

The cruise ship Seabourn Sojourn (off Mozambique, above) felt like a safer place to be than on land as the COVID-19 pandemic began to bloom across the globe, to writer Bill Dietrich. Surprising? Read on. (Bill Dietrich photo © 2020)

By Bill Dietrich

— Our once-in-a-lifetime, 50th anniversary world cruise was sunk by a coronavirus somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Nobody had COVID-19, but our vessel was treated like a plague ship nonetheless.

After we were allowed to disembark at Perth, Australia, we were confined to a special bus, shipped to an overnight hotel, and warned we could be fined $50,000 or given a year in jail if we left our room. From there we flew home.

Were we afraid of catching the disease while aboard what critics persist in calling “floating petri dishes”? No, and here’s why.

Understand first that cruise ships vary enormously, from mega-vessels holding more than 6,000 passengers to small expedition voyages on repurposed research ships. Our vessel, the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn, is a luxury ship that is relatively roomy and obsessively cleaned by its large crew.

We got constant reminders to wash our hands. Sanitizer was at the entrance to the theater, bars and restaurants.

Sailing from carefree to confined

We departed Miami on Jan. 4 without a whisper of worry, sailing east to visit Africa and Asia before our planned end in San Francisco on May 28.

My log’s first mention of the coronavirus was Jan. 21, noting its presence in China.

On Feb. 4 we were met at the gangway in Angola by masked and gowned local medical personnel taking temperature readings without explanation. Local paranoia steadily increased as we went from port to port.

It was Feb. 22, near Zanzibar, when it was announced we would not go to Asia after all but would round Australia and New Zealand instead. A few days later we learned we could not visit the Maldive Islands or disembark in Sri Lanka when we got fuel and supplies.

Then on March 15 the Australian government abruptly canceled our first Australian port call, even though we’d been continually at sea with no COVID-19 for its two-week incubation period. New Zealand closed, too.

And on March 18 the voyage ended at Perth.

By then we were nervous about going ashore and getting on a jet. We knew we were virus free but in danger on land. Yet Australians were still socializing while we were confined. By then everyone “knew” cruise ships were incubators of the disease.

‘Petri dish’?

Some 30 million people cruised in 2019 on about 250 cruise ships worldwide. Of that fleet, at least five ships have had COVID-19 cases while cruising, and several more have had passengers test positive after disembarking. The vast majority of ships were still clean when the industry shut down.

In our case, we didn’t tour any ports with known COVID-19 or take aboard infected passengers or crew.

So why the petri dish label? First, authorities confined passengers on the Diamond Princess in Japan, dooming many to catch the disease before allowing them to disperse. Other ships became incubators when they weren’t allowed to dock, giving time for the virus to spread. It was the worst possible strategy, since passengers had to be allowed off sooner or later. But authorities made the mistake again and again.

Second, cruise ships are a fat white target. For example, cruise ships have notoriously battled the common diarrhea disorder norovirus in the past, including 561 cases on the gigantic Oasis of the Seas last year, representing 9 percent of the guests.

But a Jan. 15, 2016 Centers for Disease Control paper studied cruise industry norovirus from 2008 to 2014 and found only three outbreaks per 1,000 voyages. Some 20 million Americans get norovirus every year on land but never think to blame the restaurant, hotel, school or germy friends responsible for their plight. Using the CDC figures, the Cruise Lines International Association calculated you have a 1-in-15 chance of contracting norovirus on land versus 1-in-5,500 on a ship

But cruise lines are required to report outbreaks. Other hospitality industries are not.

Back in the real world

Will COVID-19 be the same? With cruises halted, we may never know. We do know the disease spreads rapidly in any confined group, including nursing homes, Navy ships, prisons and parties. I’m glad it wasn’t on our ship, and glad now to shelter at home.

But I did meet our ship’s doctor and his two nurses. After a shore excursion in Madagascar, I had such severe diarrhea that I became seriously dehydrated and was put on an IV. The first suspect was norovirus, but I didn’t match the symptoms and responded to antibiotics. That meant it likely was bacteria, not a virus, from a dirty toilet, beach lunch or even a wild lemur I foolishly allowed to eat out of my hand. Dumb!

The COVID-19 scare had already elevated our ship cleaning practices to Level II, which increases their frequency. Level III, never used, would have shut down buffets.

I was quarantined for the duration of my sickness plus two additional days. A cleaning crew came into our cabin several times to sanitize all surfaces with disinfectant, something that would never occur on land. Had I remained ill, I would have been put ashore at the next port.

Cruise lines rely on repeat business and are very anxious to contain disease.

Are we disappointed our world cruise ended early? Of course. But did we feel more vulnerable on our cruise ship? We felt safer. While the entire planet was catching COVID-19, we briefly enjoyed our luxury bubble and its wide, wide moat. 

Then, alas, the real world.

Holly and Bill Dietrich
on the high seas

Bill Dietrich once was science reporter for the Seattle Times and now is a mostly retired journalist and author with a suppressed immune system. He lives in Anacortes.