A crew member aboard the virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan said she fears the crew are at greater risk of being exposed to the outbreak because they are not being quarantined in the same way as the passengers and are having to continue working to take care of the guests.
More than 3,700 passengers and crew are stuck on the cruise ship in Yokohama that became a floating quarantine zone after dozens of people tested positive for the novel coronavirus earlier this month.
The cruise ship has the largest outbreak of the virus outside of mainland China, with the number of infections continuing to increase day by day. On Wednesday, Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato announced 40 new cases among those on board.
To date, a total of 175 people aboard the Diamond Princess have become infected. But while those confirmed to have the virus have been sent to local hospitals, the remaining passengers and crew have been in quarantine on the ship since February 4.
Media attention has so far focused on the ship’s international passengers who paid thousands of dollars for the cruise and are now confined to their rooms. The quarantine, which is scheduled to end on February 19, has led to cabin fever among many – with passengers only allowed out on deck for a limited time.
But as the quarantine continues more than 1,000 crew members remain at work, providing for and interacting with potentially infected passengers and taking care of the ship. They work wearing their uniforms, masks and gloves.
Japan’s Vice Minister of Health Gaku Hashimoto told CNN that, “We are trying to treat all the people equally.”
“We also know that crew members don’t have private rooms like the passengers have, and they still have to work and help on the ship, so it is not all equal. However, we are giving everyone on the ship guidelines for prevention,” Hashimoto added.
In a statement posted on their site, Princess Cruises said that, all crew members who have been cleared after an initial health screening by the Japanese Ministry of Health are “fulfilling their duties as required” and additional crew testing by health officials is ongoing. “When not working, crew members are requested to be in their staterooms,” said the statement.
Crew ‘just want to be safe’
Sonali Thakkar, 24, from Mumbai, has worked for Princess Cruises for the past two years. She is part of the security team on board the ship, working on the gangway as passengers are moved on and off.
Thakkar said she and her colleague – who she shares a cabin with – became ill with a headache, cough and a fever two days ago. Her supervisor told her to stop working and she is currently staying in her cabin in isolation.
“I’m not eating very well and have been having fevers,” she told CNN in a Skype call Wednesday. “We all are really scared and tense.”
Thakkar fears that the virus may be spreading around the crew members. At least five have already tested positive for the virus.
Thakkar’s colleagues continue to live and work in close proximity with each other, sharing cabins and eating together.
She said there are some crew members whose job it is to serve food to the isolated passengers and those on the security team, for example, who had been working around infected people.
“And then we all eat together. There are many places where we all are together, not separated from each other,” Thakkar said. “Especially when we sit in the same mess hall and eat together, the place where it can spread very fast.”
She worries that they don’t know who could be infected with the virus, especially as they continue to work around each other and the passengers.
“There are many more crew members who have been isolated to their cabins who are not even being tested yet,” she said.
Thakkar told CNN that her biggest concern is that the crew are not being separated from one another. She said “there’s no quarantine” for the crew, “just the passengers.”
“We just want every crew member to be tested and separated from the rest of the people who are infected. Because we don’t know who is carrying the virus or how fast it is spreading,” she said.
Thakker is explicit in not criticizing the company or authorities. The crew, she said, don’t mind working, but they just want assurance that they can work in a “safe environment” where they know they “won’t be the next person to get infected.”
“We just want to feel safe. We don’t feel safe here with so many people,” she said.
On Wednesday, Japan’s Health Minister Kato said a “quarantine officer,” who came aboard the ship to help with the isolation had tested positive for the virus.
Questions over the quarantine method
Infectious disease experts have expressed skepticism that the current quarantine system is the best way to contain the virus.
Peter Hotez, Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN there are concerns that Japan and the cruise line are not handling the situation properly.
“We know that we’re taking infected patients off the ship and we know they’re infectious. So if you’ve got the protective measures to take them off the ship safely, I don’t see why you wouldn’t take the others off.”
Keeping everyone on board is potentially endangering the crew, said Eric Rubin, professor of immunology at Harvard University. “I think a lot of thought went into what to do with the passengers, but it puts the crew at increased risk. It’s a closed environment, a ship. It’s the perfect place for an infectious disease to spread,” said Rubin.
In a video statement on Wednesday, Princess Cruises Executive Vice President Rai Caluori said that “the quarantine protocols on board the Diamond Princess are completely under the control of the Japanese Ministry of Health.”
CNN has requested further comment from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, and Princess Cruises.
According to Caluori the more than 1,000 crew currently working on board the ship will receive “normal pay and gratuities and paid time off following the quarantine.”
Caluori assured guests and cited a letter sent to passengers and crew by Amy Schuchat of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that, “The CDC has no evidence to suggest that the virus can spread between rooms on a ship through the air handling system.”
He added that in abundance of caution the ship is “maximizing the percentage of fresh air in crew and guest cabins as well as public spaces.”
On Tuesday, ship Captain Stefano Ravera sought to reassure those on board about the ship’s air conditioning system.
In a public address to the ship, Ravera said, “I would like to assure you that we are indeed supplying 100% fresh air throughout the ship, including your staterooms. And the air is not being recirculated.”
While speaking with CNN, a quarantine doctor came to test Thakker and her roommate for the coronavirus in their cabin. They took samples and got her to fill out a form.
“They said if we are positive they’re going to let us know as soon as possible,” she said.
It could take a few days for the results to come back. And that has her worried.
“I’m still scared, because I don’t want to be positive,” she said.
CNN’s Isaac Yee contributed to reporting.