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'A floating jailhouse': The search for answers as coronavirus cruise ship quarantine continues

Diana and Allan Chow just wanted to enjoy a luxury cruise vacation. Instead, the Toronto couple is stuck in their cabin docked off the coast of Japan, seeking answers on a massive floating quarantine site.

Princess Cruises says some passengers may soon be allowed to complete quarantine on land

Diana and Allan Chow have been stuck in their room on the Diamond Princess since last week. The cruise ship has been under quarantine because of a coronavirus outbreak. (CBC)

Diana and Allan Chow just wanted to enjoy a luxury cruise vacation.

Instead, the Toronto couple is stuck in their small cabin docked at a Japanese port, seeking answers on a massive floating quarantine site.

There have been 218 confirmed cases of the coronavirus on board the Diamond Princess, and cruise line Princess Cruises has announced that passengers may soon be allowed to complete their quarantine period on land. But the Chows say straight answers about the situation have been non-existent.

"Right now, our experience is like being in jail. A floating jailhouse," Allan Chow told CBC News via a Skype call from the ship Thursday morning. "We don't want to go outside, because we worry that we might get the virus."

"You cannot ask any questions. Nobody will give you answers in the ship. All they'll say is, 'No, sorry, we don't know anything.'"

The 19-storey ship's 3,500 passengers have been holed up since Feb. 4, after a man tested positive for the virus dubbed COVID-19 after disembarking in Hong Kong.

The ship now contains the biggest concentration of confirmed cases outside of mainland China, according to the World Health Organization. There are 255 Canadian passengers on board.

Diana and Allan Chow, right, are seen here with friends on board the ship before the quarantine. (Submitted by Tiffany Chow)

Of the passengers in Japan who tested positive for the coronavirus, 12 are Canadian, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters while travelling with the prime minister in Senegal.

"The latest count was 12 [Canadians] which had contracted the coronavirus. We have three, potentially four, which are going to be in hospitals, which have been hospitalized, to receive all the assistance they would need," Champagne said.

"So we are still monitoring the situation very carefully with the Japanese authorities."

A lack of transparency

Champagne says emergency response teams and consular officials are in Japan to make sure Canadians are receiving the help they need.

"We know that there are some people who need medications on board, they want to have contact with their families. We're facilitating that," he said.

In this image from a video, Paul Molesky, left, gets a DNA swab test in his cabin room on the Diamond Princess, anchored at a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (Cheryl and Paul Molesky via The Associated Press)

Simply monitoring the situation isn't enough, the Chows say. Diana Chow says they have tried contacting Princess Cruises, the ship's captain, and the Canadian government — but no one can tell them exactly what's going on, or when they might be able to leave.

"There's no solutions," she said. "No one's really providing the answers that we're looking for … We're sitting in the dark. [There's a] lack of transparency."

 "It's like [being] sitting ducks. That's how you feel," Allan Chow said.

Cleanliness concerns

Compounding the issue, the Chows say, is what they see as a lack of proper sanitation, which could lead to the virus's spread.

One example, they say, is health officials using the same ear thermometer to check multiple patients without sterilizing it in between. Allan Chow said when their temperatures were taken, the same thermometer was used in his ear and then in his wife's, with no cleaning in between.

Chow then called a friend on board and asked if the same thing happened to them — and it had.

"There is no cap. There is no cleaning," he said.

In the first few days of the quarantine, food was also delivered uncovered, he says, which worried him.

"Now, the last few days, they've started putting everything in a box," he said.

Princess Cruises did not respond to questions about those specific issues.

The company did say in a news release that Japan plans to move passengers who wish to leave the ship in phases, with the most "medically vulnerable" guests being moved in the first phase.

That first group will be tested, and if they test negative, they will be taken to a quarantine housing facility. If they test positive they'll be moved to a health facility, the company said in its statement.

The shore-side quarantine centre will include individual rooms with private bathrooms, and while passengers will continue to receive their medical prescriptions, they will not have access to specialized or western meals. They will be served Japanese bento boxes for the duration of the quarantine, according to the release.

Everyone who wishes to stay on the ship will also be allowed to do so, the company says.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press and Thomson Reuters

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