Medics to board virus-hit California ship ahead of docking

Crew will remain quarantined on board the Grand Princess cruise ship which "will depart Oakland as soon as possible" (AFP Photo/JUSTIN SULLIVAN)

Los Angeles (AFP) - Medical officers were Sunday set to board a virus-hit cruise ship stranded off California and begin screening passengers for an "unprecedented and difficult" landing operation.

The Grand Princess, which has 21 confirmed novel coronavirus infections among 3,500 people on board, is due to dock in Oakland on Monday after four days held off the coast of nearby San Francisco.

The operation to move passengers ashore will be a "two-three day process," with the start time yet to be determined based on currents and tides, Governor Gavin Newsom told a press conference Sunday.

"We are still working out the enormity of complexity of making sure we prepare the site and... prepare for a quick turnaround," he said.

In an "unprecedented and difficult operation," medical workers were due to board the ship Sunday afternoon and conduct "rapid assessments" of passengers, added epidemiologist John Redd.

Authorities have already begun delivering prescription medication to onboard passengers in need, Carolyn Wright, a passenger on the Grand Princess, told AFP.

Passengers in urgent need of hospitalization will be moved immediately through the sealed, 10-acre Oakland site to medical centers for treatment.

Those US residents not requiring treatment will then be moved to military bases in California, Texas and Georgia for a 14-day isolation period.

Several hundred foreign passengers, representing 54 nationalities, will be repatriated to their countries.

Oakland's port was chosen as it was the easiest viable location "to seal off, securely move passengers toward their isolation destinations and protect the safety of the public," the governor's emergency services office said.

Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf moved to tamp down fears that nearby residents and port workers could be exposed.

"No one will be quarantined in Oakland, or released to our community," she said.

Crew will remain quarantined on board the ship, which will depart Oakland as soon as passengers have disembarked.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams earlier called the operation to help those on board a "delicate balance" but also played down any risk to the wider US public.

"The most important thing for American people to know is that folks who test positive will be kept isolated so that they cannot expose other people," he told CBS.

On Sunday afternoon, passengers -- who have been confined to their cabins since Thursday -- were allowed to start going out on deck in small groups for fresh air, Wright, 63, told AFP.