The U.S. Navy’s new plan to preemptively self-quarantine ships in the Pacific region, where they will remain at sea for 14 days over fears about the 2019 novel coronavirus, sparked concerns of disastrous consequences mirroring the explosion of cases on a cruise ship off Japan.
It was almost fitting that, hours after the plan went public, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Friday it had confirmed two more cases of the deadly disease in Americans who were rescued from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
As of Friday, there were 62 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. One of those cases—a severely ill person in northern California who had not traveled abroad—marked the first infection of unknown origin on American soil, while 14 patients came through the American health system after traveling to China or having close contact with someone who had. The rest, aside from the 44 cases from the cruise ship, were repatriated individuals who fled the vicinity of the virus’s origin in China on State Department-chartered planes.
In the case of the Diamond Princess, a man boarded the ship carrying the virus, then disembarked in Hong Kong, and—after a controversial quarantine that one expert called “the stupidest idea ever”—ultimately helped transmit it to hundreds of people.
“It’s a cold virus, and colds are readily transmissible from person-to-person,” explained Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles who previously worked for the CDC and who described the cruise quarantine as “a disaster.”
After the quarantine, the Diamond Princess was the largest single outbreak outside China until this week’s developments in South Korea and Italy. The cruise company has said it was following recommendations from Japanese health authorities.
The saga made it all the more remarkable when, on Thursday evening, the U.S. Navy signaled it would self-quarantine ships and monitor sailors who’ve traveled to higher-risk areas in the Pacific Fleet for symptoms of the virus “out of an abundance of caution.”
Navy spokesman Lt. James Adams told CNN that there were “no indications that any U.S Navy personnel have contracted Coronavirus Disease 2019.” (One U.S. military member in South Korea has previously been reported to have the virus.)
“The health and welfare of our sailors, civilians and their families is paramount and our efforts are directed at detection and, if required, prevention of the spread of this illness,” Adams said.
Adams did not immediately respond to requests for further comment on details about or the wisdom of a seaborne quarantine from The Daily Beast. But experts’ takes on the plan ranged from cautious optimism to profound skepticism.
“If your goal is to spread the virus, that’s probably a very good thing to do,” deadpanned Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at UCLA who has served as an adviser for the World Health Organization, CDC, and National Institutes of Health. “I mean, seriously.”
“There are two possibilities, right? Either someone is infected on some of those ships, or not. If nobody is infected, they’re going to spend 14 days sitting out on the open ocean and nothing happens,” said Brewer. “On the other hand, if somebody is infected and contagious, you have a bunch of people in a confined space who can’t get away from each other. That’s actually how you maximize transmission.”
“The Diamond Princess is a perfect example of that,” said Brewer. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If I had to guess, it’s because they feel like they have to do something and they don’t know what to do.”
Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, had a more tempered response, suggesting the plan “isn’t unreasonable” if officials are careful to screen people with fever or upper respiratory symptoms.
“I don’t think it’s a terrible idea, but they have to do it right,” he said.
Klausner, meanwhile, pointed out that, “for the Diamond Princess, there was chaos that I would not expect on a U.S. Navy vessel.”
“With the Navy, there’s normally an onboard medical facility, and they can have on board testing and devices,” said Klausner. “I would expect it would be a lot more organized.”