ROME—More than 7,000 people were quarantined on an Italian cruise ship in the Mediterranean port of Civitavecchia outside of Rome after a Chinese woman from Hong Kong came down with a fever and symptoms that mimic the coronavirus.
Initial tests seemed to exclude the deadly virus, according to Italian media, but passengers were expected to be kept onboard overnight as a precaution. A second round of tests late Thursday completely excluded contagion, and Italy’s health authorities gave the green light for passengers to disembark. But as of Thursday evening, the mayor of Civitavecchia refused to authorize any passengers to get off the ship.
Tourism operators, suddenly confronted with a new nightmare scenario tied to the virus, scrambled to address fears of an outbreak on a cruise ship. “We have no information, the internet inside the ship isn’t working, and we can’t get news. But above all we take meals together in the common areas, and we don’t know if someone is infected,” Liborio Iervolino, a cruise passenger from Puglia said. ‘There are no disposable dishes and in the rooms, the televisions only broadcast advertisements. We would like to see the news and understand what is happening.”
The Costa Smerelda, the fifth-largest cruise ship in the world and the flagship of an Italian company best known for the 2011 crash of the Costa Concordia on Tuscan island of Giglio, departed from Savona, Italy, on Jan. 25 with 6,000 passengers and 1,000 crew onboard. The massive, 19-deck vessel made stops in Marseilles, Barcelona, and Palma de Mallorca before docking in Civitavecchia on Thursday. It was scheduled to return to Savona for the Feb. 1 end of the cruise.
But passengers who had lined up for a Rome excursion or to disembark at its penultimate stop were told to stay on the ship after medics in full hazmat suits boarded the vessel Thursday morning to check on a female Chinese patient in her fifties who was in the ship’s hospital.
The woman, along with her asymptomatic husband and the medical team who treated her during the voyage, are being held in isolation on the ship. Samples from the woman were sent to the Lazzaro Spallanzani infectious disease hospital in Rome to be tested.
Citizens of the port town of Civitavecchia have gone to the port to protest the disembarkation of 1,143 passengers whose voyage was scheduled to end in their town. “All the protocols are being followed and we will keep the case constantly monitored,” Civitavecchia’s mayor, Ernesto Tedesco, told worried citizens as he threatened to sue the cruise company if they disembarked before the full test results were back.
The Costa company confirmed to The Daily Beast that the couple were among more than 750 Chinese or Hong Kong passengers on the voyage. Of those, 351 embarked on Jan. 25 in Savona along with the sick passenger, while others got on at the ship’s various ports of call in Spain and France.
The couple arrived in Italy for the Jan. 25 embarkation on a flight from Hong Kong to Milan’s Malpensa airport, which means if the woman is confirmed to have the virus, health officials will then begin tracing anyone who flew with her, since the virus can be contagious even before symptoms show. A Costa representative would not confirm when the woman first reported being sick.
“The situation is under control and at the moment there are no reasons for concern on board,” Italian Coast Guard Commander Vincenzo Leone said in a statement Thursday.
Passengers reached by The Daily Beast via social media say they were not told directly that the woman was suspected of carrying the virus, but were told to alert crew members if they were sick with fever or respiratory conditions.
Several passengers have tweeted that they should have been told earlier in the voyage that they might be at risk. Many complained that they were not given face masks or rubber gloves to prevent infection.