COVID-19: Why are cruise ship passengers quarantined and not self-isolated at home?

Canadians on the Grand Princess cruise ship are being sent to Canadian Forces Base Trenton for a two-week quarantine, while others from affected countries suspected of contracting the coronavirus are able to self-isolate at home. CBC examines why the passengers can't go home and isolate themselves.

228 Canadian passengers from Grand Princess cruise ship landed at CFB Trenton Tuesday morning

The Grand Princess cruise ship is shown docked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, Calif., on Monday. Multiple people on board tested positive for COVID-19. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

Canadian passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship are being sent to Canadian Forces Base Trenton for a two-week quarantine, while other possibly infected Canadians returning from affected countries are able to self-isolate at home.

The two different courses of action may seem inconsistent and raise questions about why the passengers can't just go home, isolate themselves and, if infected, recover there.

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician at Toronto General Hospital, said he doesn't know why there are two different policies.

"My opinion would be as long as [the passengers are] isolated and adhering to their 14 days, that sounds reasonable to me," he said.

"Whether they're at Trenton or at home, personally, I feel is up for debate," Bogoch said. "I would not let someone off of a cruise ship go unmonitored for 14 days because there is a real potential that they could get this infection, then transmit it, even unknowingly."

But Colin Lee, a specialist in public health and infectious disease, said the on-base quarantine is a better option from a public health perspective, because compliance is total.

'Reliability is close to 100 per cent'

"Being in Trenton, the reliability is close to 100 per cent. Being quarantined at home is certainly a few notches less than 100 per cent."

So far, two passengers and 19 crew members of the Grand Princess have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The ship, with more than 3,500 people aboard, had been idling off the coast of San Francisco for several days now, waiting for clearance to dock.

A cruise ship is a closed environment, with very tight quarters and lots of surfaces that potentially have been handled by people with the virus, making it an area where infection is high-risk, said Lee.

"Someone who comes from the ship who is feeling well is really in a high-risk situation of having been infected."

The Canadian government announced on Sunday that 237 Canadians were among those on board the Grand Princess. On Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said 228 people were on the flight to CFB Trenton, where they will undergo a 14-day quarantine. He said a "limited number" of people who had other medical conditions that are not related to COVID-19 stayed behind to be treated in California.

Other Canadians who have been travelling abroad and developed symptoms have been allowed to go home to self-isolation.

Asked about the two policies, the Public Health Agency of Canada said in an email to CBC News that travellers who have been in an area with a high concentration of cases, like a cruise ship, are at greater risk of having been exposed than travellers coming from an affected area with limited or no exposure to an infected individual.

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"Imposing these temporary limits on the movements of these Canadians is an extraordinary measure being taken to protect the health of travellers as well as the health of all Canadians," PHAC said.

The majority of COVID-19 cases in Ontario have been mild and have not required hospitalization nor required acute care treatment, David Jensen, a spokesperson with Ontario's Ministry of Health, said in an email to CBC News.

Self-isolation at home has been recommended for mildly ill cases to ensure hospitals can maintain the capacity to treat and manage more severe cases if required, he said.

For travellers who come back from affected countries and then develop symptoms, putting them in a more strict quarantine outside of their home would be difficult, Lee said.

"How are you going to transport them? How are you going to get the staff to monitor them? Where are you going to find a space to do that? It just is not feasible."

Medical personnel don protective equipment after delivering virus testing kits to the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California. (Chief Master Sgt. Seth Zweben/California National Guard/The Associated Press)

"We are at the stage now where there are hundreds of people being tested across the country. And they have come from areas of concern and are symptomatic. There's just no feasible way of isolating them anywhere but their home."

It's a different scenario with people on a ship, he said, where there's a "captive audience" and "a bunch of contacts together."

Heeding the calls of public health

Lee said he believes Canadians are heeding the calls of public health officials. 

"We have not really seen evidence of a lot of people saying to public health, 'Fine, we're getting tested. But I'm going to ignore your advice,'"  he said. "I think people really understand the gravity of the situation, why we're doing this."

Local public health units will regularly check in with confirmed cases to ensure they are abiding by guidance around self-isolation, Jensen said.

As well, medical officers of health have statutory powers they can use to enforce self-isolation if there is a belief that cases are not adhering to guidance.

"As everyone has co-operated, these powers have not been necessary so far," he said.

But it's largely based on an honour system, Bogoch said.

"When people are in home isolation, you're really relying on their good will," Bogoch said. "When people are in quarantine, you're not relying on their goodwill. They're in quarantine. They can't go anywhere."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Ellen Mauro, The Canadian Press