'Misled by silence': A US couple quarantined in Australia say Princess Cruises and local health officials covered up coronavirus infections on board their ship

insider@insider.com (Rosie Perper)
Los Angeles natives Bill and Kay Barancik in Sydney, Australia before boarding the Ruby Princess Cruise ship on March 8, 2020.

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  • Kay and Bill Barancik embarked on what they thought would be a dream 13-day cruise aboard the Ruby Princess ship from Sydney, Australia, on March 8th.
  • The couple, from LA, had their trip cut short after three passengers and a crew member on board got sick during the cruise. 
  • The Baranciks, along with nearly 2,700 other passengers, disembarked on March 19, unaware that the cases on board had been tested for COVID-19. 
  • The Baranciks are now under a mandatory 14-day quarantine in Australia. They estimate that they have lost some $3,100 in missed flights and hotel stays.  
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

On March 8, Kay and Bill Barancik embarked on what they thought would be a dream 13-day cruise from Sydney, Australia, around the coast of New Zealand.

The trip was a belated birthday celebration for Kay, who had just turned 73. 

"We were so excited," Kay told Insider. The couple landed in Sydney from their home in Los Angeles several days before their ship, the Ruby Princess, was due to sail. "Everything was beautiful ... it all seemed so normal." 

But the trip of a lifetime ended two days earlier than expected, with the ship returning to Sydney Harbor on March 19. 

About 2,700 passengers disembarked from the ship at around 6 a.m. local time. Barancik said that her passport was not checked and no temperatures were taken as they got off.

Princess Cruises, which operates the Ruby Princess, announced more than 24 hours later that three passengers and one crew member "reported flu-like symptoms during the cruise." They later tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

It's unclear how many people on the ship had direct contact with the four COVID-19 patients before they were placed into isolation on board the ship.

The Baranciks, along with thousands of other passengers, are now struggling to understand how Australian health authorities and Princess Cruises let the passengers go on their way without warning of their potential exposure to the virus, which had by then been officially declared a pandemic.

Kay and Bill Barancik celebrating her 73rd birthday aboard the Ruby Princess.

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Kay Brancik said she feels deceived by both the New South Wales Ministry of Health (known as NSW Health), and Princess Cruises. Neither told passengers about those on board exhibiting symptoms that matched the coronavirus.

At the time they were travelling, sister ships the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess had already recorded major, deadly coronavirus outbreaks.

"The prior cruise had delayed disembarking so they knew there were problems," she said. "We knew other Princess ships had problems like Diamond and Grand. So when we were ushered off quickly, we assumed no one had reported symptoms."

"We were misled by silence."

Prior to the ship's arrival in Sydney Harbour, Australia put a 30-day ban on international cruise ships sailing into its ports. The Ruby Princess, along with three other ships, was given special permission to dock anyway. 

A spokesperson for Carnival Australia, which operates seven cruise brands including Princess Cruises, told Insider in a statement that the ship was allowed to dock because it was regarded as " low risk for COVID-19."

"Our onboard medical team was rigorous in its treatment of some guests who reported flu-like symptoms and these guests were isolated," the spokesperson said.

"In line with existing protocols, the ship reported these cases to NSW Health, which in turn requested swabs to be provided following the ship's arrival in Sydney, some of which subsequently tested positive for COVID-19." 

The spokesperson said that the four cases were not tested on board because "it is practice the world over that tests for COVID-19 are not conducted onboard cruise ships." 

"The protocol is for swabs to be tested by the relevant public health authority, and this was done in relation to Ruby Princess," the spokesperson said.

"Disembarkation of the ship was in line with the then-existing process for health clearance for vessels on arrival in port."

Kay Barancik in Dunedin, New Zealand.

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NSW Health conducted coronavirus testing on the sick Ruby Princess passengers only after its thousands of passengers had left.

New South Wales health minister Brad Hazzard admitted on March 21 that the results of the COVID-19 testing should have been known before that decision was made.

Since the incident, there have been more than 400 confirmed coronavirus cases across Australia linked to the Ruby Princess, according to The Guardian, accounting for more than 10% of Australia's total cases.

Kay Barancik says she's not sure who to blame for the debacle, which has left her and her husband stranded in Sydney under a mandatory 14-day quarantine from the day they disembarked from the ship. 

She says she and Bill knew of the risks associated with cruise travel before they left for Sydney, but had been planning the trip for over a year and felt confident that Australia had a low number of coronavirus cases.

At the time that they arrived in Sydney on March 5, several days before their cruise left, Australia had only recorded 59 cases

Kay was also planning to visit a friend in Australia battling a terminal illness after their cruise, strengthening their determination to make the trip. 

The couple attempted to return to Los Angeles on several occasions after the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic became clearer. First, they tried to fly out of Auckland, New Zealand, which was one of the cruise stops. But then the stop was canceled.

Then they tried to take a United Airlines flight out of Sydney on March 22, which they could not board because of the mandatory quarantine.

NSW Health has been sending the Baranciks a daily email survey to monitor their symptoms and their movements. The couple says NSW Health has not offered any sort of compensation or services for their prolonged stay in Australia. 

Kay estimates that the couple has lost over $3,100 in missed flights and hotel stays while they wait out their quarantine period.  

A representative for NSW Health did not immediately respond to Insider for comment.

Other passengers on the ship have claimed that Princess Cruises is responsible for the mishap, which unleashed a wave of sick passengers onto Australia's streets without warning. 

"I'd like to see Princess Cruises investigated," said Janet Dixon-Hughes, another Ruby Princess passenger who is self-isolating at home in Australia. She told Insider: "The local authorities are playing a pointless blame game. The real culprit is the cruise company."

"Why were they not carrying COVID-19 test kits?"

Charles Davis contributed reporting.

Read the original article on Insider