The Current

Diamond Princess coronavirus quarantine was 'fundamental failure,' says Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer

Some Canadians who were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship are preparing to fly home, but dozens more are infected with coronavirus and staying in Japan for treatment. Did the quarantine on the ship just make things worse?

Quarantine effectively split ship from shore, but not sick from healthy: Laurie Garrett

The cruise ship Diamond Princess has been under quarantine in Yokohama, Japan, since early February. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

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The quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise ship failed because adequate steps weren't taken to stop the spread of the virus aboard the ship itself, says a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer.

"One of the most important rules of effective quarantine is to separate the sick from the well, that's the whole point," said Laurie Garrett, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"But in this case, the ship was quarantined, so it wasn't really, effectively, about separating the sick from the well, it was about separating the ship from the shore," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"And I think that's the fundamental failure."

The Diamond Princess cruise ship has been docked in Yokohama, Japan, since early February. Of the 3,700 passengers, about 600 have contracted COVID-19, including 47 out of 256 Canadians on board

Canadian passengers cleared to travel are headed for a plane and bound for home after quarantine on a cruise ship in Japan. 3:12

While the infected Canadians will stay in Japan for treatment, some of those not showing symptoms were told Thursday that they would be flown home on a government-chartered plane to face a further 14-day quarantine on arrival.

"What went on onboard really had no steps or measures taken to safeguard the wellness of those who were not yet infected," said Garrett.

She said there appeared to be a failure to understand "that this was more than a respiratory virus, more than a contact virus, that it also exploits the ability to be passed through human feces and waste." 

"That means that everybody's hands are potentially vehicles of transmission," she said.

Videos posted by 'scared' staff

Garrett pointed to videos posted online by Diamond Princess staff, in which they talked about "how scared they were."

"[They described] how nobody was telling them how to protect themselves, and how they were expected to go from cabin to cabin to cabin delivering food and so on, and didn't have protection," she said.

"If that's true, then that's a fundamental failure. That means there was no effective infection control on the ship at all."

CBC reporter Saša Petricic says Rose Yerex will join her husband, Greg, in a Japanese health centre after discovering they both have COVID-19. 3:54

Japanese health officials have defended precautions taken on the ship, saying that about 1,000 crew members were told to wear surgical masks, wash their hands, use disinfectant sprays and stop operations at restaurants, bars and other entertainment areas after Feb. 5, when the first group of 10 infections was reported and the start of the 14-day quarantine was announced.

Officials said passengers were instructed to stay in their cabins and not walk around or contact other passengers. Those in windowless cabins could go out on the deck for about an hour each day.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Princess Cruises, the operator of the Diamond Princess, said the company was working in co-ordination with the Japanese Ministry of Health to monitor passengers who have contracted COVID-19, and need further treatment.

The statement added that the company is "refunding the full cruise fare for all guests including air travel, hotel, ground transportation, pre-paid shore excursions, gratuities and other items," as well as offering travel assistance to passengers when they are well enough to travel. The company is also offering a credit for passengers to take a future cruise.

Garrett said the ship will have to be studied closely for clues as to how the virus spread during the quarantine.

"You've got to study every inch of it, swab it to find samples of virus, try to figure out how the virus was moving inside that ship," she said.

"And then it's going to have to get pulled out of use and scrubbed down like nothing has ever been scrubbed down before, before it can be put back into commercial use."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Idella Sturino, Samira Mohyeddin, Alison Masemann and Mehek Mazhar.