Panic has swept through a luxury cruise liner following the discovery on board of a laboratory worker who handled clinical samples from Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who was the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. The ship has been prevented from docking at Belize and Mexico, and is now en-route back to Galveston, Texas.
The laboratory worker is being kept under voluntary quarantine in her quarters, and the ship is being thoroughly disinfected, but that hasn’t stopped passengers fearing the worst. “It’s really difficult to control any type of virus that’s on a cruise ship. It’s like a floating petri dish. It spreads very rapidly,” commented one passenger.
The cruise ship Carnival Magic set sail from Galveston five days ago for a week long cruise around the Caribbean, with a scheduled stop at Cozumel, Mexico. The lab supervisor, who has so far not been named, joined 3,689 fellow passengers and 1,367 crew, as she was not subject to any travel warnings from either the Texan Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas, where she worked and Mr Duncan died, nor from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Telegraph has reported. She was only required to self-monitor by taking her temperature daily.
Whilst aboard the ship she viewed news reports about the two nurses, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, who worked at the hospital and have now been diagnosed with Ebola, and decided to report herself to the ship’s captain. She also voluntarily quarantined herself by staying inside her cabin.
The ship’s captain decided to attempt to put in to port at Belize so that the woman could be flown back to Texas, but the Belizean authorities refused to allow the ship to dock. Dean Barrow, the Prime Minister of Belize even refused a personal appeal from John Kerry, the US Seretary of State, to allow a helicopter to pick up the woman.
“It is clear, even in the US with all their capacity, with all their expertise, there are still a lot of unanswered questions as to how this thing gets transmitted. Their response, their approach, their treatment of the issue, seems to be a work in progress,” said Mr Barrow, whilst his government issued a statement which read “The passenger never set foot in Belize. When even the smallest doubt remains, we will ensure the health and safety of the Belizean people.” The US State Department has since admitted that Belize’s refusal to help the passenger “probably could have been handled differently.”
It was whilst off the coast of Belize that other passengers began to suspect that something was wrong, as many noticed first that the ship was stationery about five miles off the coast, and then that it began to pull away from the nearby port.
One passenger, who gave his name to CNN as Michael, told how he had first noticed something was amiss when the map on the television screen in his cabin showed the ship’s current course. “We were supposed to put into a port and I noticed that we were pulling away from the port,” he said. “The captain finally came on and said we couldn’t get permission to port.
“That’s when everything hit the fan here and we realised we were quarantined.
“There were all kind of rumours. They never really said Ebola, they said ‘symptoms,’ they kept it somewhat vague but everyone knew what they were talking about.
“Obviously our concern is where is this person is on the ship and what kind of set up do they have to care for them? I can’t imagine it’s a completely quarantined area. They have not told us at all where the person is.
“My wife has medication for a kidney transplant, she’s susceptible to getting something a little easier than the rest of us, and we don’t know where this person has been on the ship.”
Other passengers described panic amongst the guests, and how a cleaning operation was underway on the ship. Jon Malone commented “People are scared. I’ve seen people crying. You’re using the same buffet line as someone else, the same waiters, the folks that clean the state rooms.
“If someone was cleaning their state room and cleaned yours right after, the exposure that you have there to elevators…it’s very tight quarters and a lot of interaction.
“It’s really difficult to control any type of virus that’s on a cruise ship. It’s like a floating petri dish. It spreads very rapidly. They’re cleaning elevators. I’ve seen people with pink liquid cleaning the bar area and the handrails.”
His brother Jeremy added “You see a ton of people that are crying, and then there are folks that are having a drink.
“There was a lot of folks who clean the state rooms with buckets and chemicals and people in masks were running around the ship.”
Having been refused permission to dock in Belize, the captain then set a course for the scheduled stop of Cozumel, Mexico, where it was hoped that the lab worker could again be disembarked and flown back to the US. However, Mexican authorities also refused permission to dock.
Eric Lupher, a passenger who also works as a reporter for ABC7 in Denver, Collorado took to Twitter to report “I’m on the Carnival ship with the Ebola scare. Mexican authorities not allowing us into Cozumel. Heading back to Galveston.”
Ebola has a maximum incubation period of 21 days. As it was nearly three weeks ago that the lab supervisor handled the samples, and so far she has not shown any symptoms, it is believed that she does not pose any risk to the crew or passengers aboard the liner.
Carnival Cruise Lines has now distributed a letter to each passenger, informing them that “At this time the guest remains in isolation on board the ship and is not deemed to be a risk to any guests or crew.
“It is important to reiterate that the individual has no symptoms and has been isolated in an extreme abundance of caution.”
The company has offered €200 compensation and a 50 percent discount on a future booking as compensation for missing the Mexico stop. A spokesman for the company told press “We greatly regret that this situation, which was completely beyond our control, precluded the ship from making its scheduled visit to Cozumel and the resulting disappointment it has caused our guests.”
The US State Department is also working with the company to bring the Carnival Magic safely back to Texas “out of an abundance of caution”.
Following the death of Mr Duncan from Ebola last week, there has been widespread panic throughout America over Ebola. In one incident, an entrance to the Pentagon was closed, and Ebola precautions put in place after a woman was sick in the car park, despite there being no evidence that she had contracted Ebola.
In his weekly address to the American people, President Obama said “What we’re seeing now is not an ‘outbreak’ or an ‘epidemic’ of Ebola in America. This is a serious disease, but we can’t give in to hysteria or fear.”
He added that he would not be cancelling air travel to West Africa, saying “Trying to seal off an entire region of the world, if that were even possible, could actually make the situation worse.
“Experience shows that it could also cause people in the affected region to change their travel, to evade screening, and make the disease even harder to track.”