More than 780 Westerdam travelers trapped in Cambodia over coronavirus fears just tested negative for COVID-19 and can finally go home

insider@insider.com (Rhea Mahbubani)
Passengers of the MS Westerdam disembark at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.

Associated Press/Heng Sinith

  • More than 780 Westerdam passengers who were stuck in Cambodia, either in hotels in Phnom Penh or aboard the docked ship in Sihanoukville, have tested negative for coronavirus, Holland America Line announced on Wednesday.
  • Up next are COVID-19 tests for over 740 crew members.
  • The luxury liner spent 13 days at sea after being denied entry by five ports amid an escalating coronavirus crisis.
  • An American passenger who departed from Phnom Penh was stopped by thermal scanners in Malaysia, where she tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalized.
  • This development resulted in hundreds of Westerdam passengers still in Cambodia being stuck in limbo once again.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It's been 19 days since more than 2,000 people boarded the MS Westerdam and departed from Hong Kong on what was supposed to be a fun and relaxing cruise aboard a luxury liner — but morphed into quite a harrowing journey instead. Some will finally be able to head home in the coming days.

Holland America Line, which operates the ship, said in a statement to Insider that 781 guests who were either still aboard the docked vessel or in hotels in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, have tested negative for the coronavirus. These screening results have been confirmed by the Cambodian Ministry of Health, said the company, which is now trying to finalize travel arrangements for their passengers.

"These results provide the required clearance for remaining guests in Cambodia to begin their onward journey home," the statement explained.

This saga with a seemingly endless number of twists and turns hasn't ended for everyone, though: 747 crew members are still trapped on the Westerdam, which docked in Sihanoukville on February 13. Their COVID-19 tests are up next, according to Holland America Line.

 

Short-lived excitement

The Westerdam spent nearly two weeks stranded at sea as Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, the US territory of Guam, and Thailand turned it away over fears that someone on board might have contracted COVID-19 — despite Holland America Line insisting that no one had tested positive.

So, there was much ado when the Westerdam was finally allowed to dock in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. After 20 passengers tested negative for COVID-19, the Westerdam's 1,455 guests and 802 crew members were slated to go ashore and take charter flights to the Phnom Penh, where they would fly home from. Holland America Line, which is owned by Carnival Corp., was to arrange and pay for the travel of everyone on board.

But a snafu brought that feeling of relief to a grinding halt.

An American woman, who tested positive for COVID-19, was among 1,000-plus passengers who disembarked the ship on Saturday, took flights to Phnom Penh, and then headed to different destinations across the globe. 

She snagged officials' attention at the thermal scanners at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport, according to The New York Times. Holland America Line issued a statement, saying that the woman has been hospitalized in stable condition, while her traveling companion tested negative for coronavirus.

Passengers stand on the top deck of the MS Westerdam while the cruise ship is docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. The feel-good story of how Cambodia allowed a cruise ship to dock after it was turned away elsewhere in Asia for fear of spreading the deadly virus that began in China has taken a dark turn after a passenger released from the ship tested positive for the virus. (AP Photo)

Associated Press

A 'turning point' in the fight to control the spread of COVID-19

Many passengers, who left the Westerdam alongside her, went to local sightseeing spots and traveled internationally, with some en route to the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands, on Sunday. Experts told The Times that this could mark a "turning point" in the battle to contain the coronavirus and the best way forward would be to track down every passenger and put them in a two-week quarantine.

Holland America Line said it was working with officials from Cambodia, Malaysia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. "We are in close coordination with some of the leading health experts from around the world," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Grant Tarling said. "These experts are working with the appropriate national health authorities to investigate and follow-up with any individuals who may have come in contact with the guest."

It also highlighted the steps taken while people were still on board, including temperature checks and health screening questionnaires. Officials in Cambodia also reviewed the passengers' passports to ensure that one had traveled through mainland China for at least 14 days prior to the Westerdam cruise's kick off.  All tests came back negative, Holland America Line stressed.

"During the voyage, there was no indication of COVID-19 on the ship," the statement said. " The guest who tested positive did not visit the ship's medical center to report any symptoms of illness. An additional 20 guests who reported to the medical center during the cruise were tested by health officials for COVID-19, and all results were confirmed negative."

The cruise ship MS Westerdam at dock in the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Reuters

A breeding ground for 'confusion,' 'chaos,' and 'frustration'

Passenger Elly Chybowski, who is at the Sokha Hotel in Phnom Penh with her husband, Timothy, told USA Today on Tuesday that guests receive two updates a day and also have the support of the local US embassy staff.

"Today they had posted that several more countries will not let us fly through," she said.

When passengers' travel arrangements are finalized, they will be given a letter that discloses their test results. No one at the hotel has tested positive for coronavirus, but the anxious passengers "have been told not to leave the hotel in case we are assigned a flight," Chybowski said to USA Today.

Steve Muth, of Michigan, described a similar experience to USA Today, noting, "Everything is a mess right now."

Traveling with his wife, their daughter and her boyfriend, Muth recalled being told by Holland America Line that their tickets were ready. But news of the one ill patient further changed the course of their trip.

They're still waiting, Muth said, adding, "(It's) just a lot of confusion, chaos, [and] frustration."

From Cambodian revelry to a 'terrible and frightening' coronavirus test

Passenger Christina Kerby, who chronicled the goings-on aboard the Westerdam, said on Twitter that passengers were welcomed to Cambodia with flowers, traditional scarves, and even a visit from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

After reaching the hotel, though, the tone of her tweets morphed, going from observations about seafood and beer to being in limbo once again as she was restricted to her room.

She also apologized for traveling within Cambodia before knowing that one of her fellow Westerdam passengers had tested positive for COVID-19, and described her own "terrible and frightening" coronavirus screening, during which she "panicked and screamed."

 

The otherwise upbeat Kerby, who is passing time by searching for Pokemon for her children, isn't even home yet, but admitted to already experiencing the stigma associated with the coronavirus. Her husband echoed the sentiment.

Kerby express jubilation upon receiving Holland America Line's update late Tuesday.

 

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