First passengers leave virus-hit cruise ship at California port

Sébastien VUAGNAT, with Andrew MARSZAL in Los Angeles
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Medical workers operate from tents as patients and passengers are brought ashore from the Grand Princess cruise ship at Oakland in California

Medical workers operate from tents as patients and passengers are brought ashore from the Grand Princess cruise ship at Oakland in California (AFP Photo/Josh Edelson)

Oakland (United States) (AFP) - The first passengers were taken ashore from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship that docked at California's port of Oakland Monday, with the infected "being dealt with in proper isolation," said US Vice President Mike Pence.

The Grand Princess arrived in the San Francisco Bay after days stranded at sea with 21 confirmed coronavirus infections among more than 3,500 passengers and crew.

Emergency workers equipped with gowns, gloves, respirators and face shields loaded those requiring immediate treatment into ambulances, while all port employees and residents were cleared from the fenced-off landing site.

"We hope before the end of today to begin to disembark California residents," said Pence, appointed to lead the US response to the virus. More than 900 passengers from the state were on board.

All 25 children on board were healthy, added Pence.

"Individuals will be led off the ship in smaller groups," and "anyone who is symptomatic... will be fitted with a surgical mask and disembarked via a separate gangway" to avoid disease spread, said a statement from Governor Gavin Newsom's office.

The ship had been idling off the San Francisco coast since Wednesday.

Passengers gathered on balconies were "whooping and waving at dock workers onshore" as the ship drew into port, said Carolyn Wright, 63, of New Mexico, from on board the vessel.

Tents were set up on the Oakland quayside, with the surrounding floor doused in what appeared to be disinfectant, she added.

Buses and flights were lined up to transport passengers.

After initial screening, those who don't require acute care will be quarantined for 14 days at US military bases in California, Texas and Georgia -- or flown to their home countries, in the case of foreign residents.

Those at US bases will be given private single rooms with access to private bathrooms, said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

Passengers will be fully tested at their onward destination to avoid delays.

"The crew itself will push off from the dock, and they will be quarantined and observed and treated shipboard," said Pence.

The entire site will be decontaminated by pressure-washing with a bleach solution once the operation is complete.

- Dancing on deck -

Wright earlier Monday said the mood had been lifted on board by the prospect of finally reaching land, and guests were briefly allowed to leave their cabins.

Some couples danced on deck as others walked laps around the huge ship.

"It really feels wonderful to have gotten out and stretched our legs," Wright told AFP. "I feel kind of energized and happy. It just makes you feel like, OK, things are happening and things are now moving."

She added: "Hopefully things will be smooth from here on."

Robert Kadlec, a senior Department of Health and Human Services official, said: "Our intent is to disembark about half of the passengers on the boat today and the other half tomorrow."

On Monday, the Princess Cruises company announced full refunds, scrapped onboard charges and offered free future cruises to affected passengers on the Grand Princess.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he would "recommend strongly" anyone with an underlying condition -- particularly if they are elderly -- do not go on a cruise ship.

And Canada, which had 240 citizens on the ship, became the latest country to warn people to avoid taking cruises.

The US has recorded at least 26 deaths from the coronavirus and 605 confirmed cases across 35 states, according to a Johns Hopkins tally.