Update 9:20pm EST: Earlier this evening, the ship’s captain, Torbjorn Lund, announced the possibility of a sixth case in a person who was not in the same traveling group as the five other cases. Lund said that the latest case was detected by a rapid test done on board and crew were awaiting results of testing done by Barbados officials to confirm the case. If the positive test is confirmed, it would suggest that the coronavirus has spread beyond the initial cluster on the ship. The cruise reporter on the ship, Gene Sloan, said officials were now discussing plans for people who have tested negative to disembark. Sloan noted that his rapid test on the ship was negative and he’s awaiting results from testing done by Barbados officials, which are expected early Friday.
Original story 6:15pm EST: The first cruise ship to set sail in the Caribbean since the coronavirus pandemic began is now quarantining off the coast of Barbados after at least five passengers have tested positive for COVID-19.
All 53 passengers and 66 crew aboard the small vessel, SeaDream I, were being tested today to determine if there are any other cases on board. The ship’s captain announced midday Wednesday that one person had tested positive, sending the boat into quarantine. Further testing reported Thursday identified four other cases, all close contacts of the first case.
The ship’s owner, SeaDream Yacht Club, reported that its medical team had finished retesting all crew and all were negative. SeaDream said it was still working through all 53 passengers, 37 of whom are American.
News of the COVID-struck ship first washed ashore from cruise-industry reporter Gene Sloan, who himself is aboard the ship and currently quarantining in his cabin. Sloan, who boarded Saturday, has been thoroughly documenting his experience, including all of the COVID precautions on board. He has repeatedly referred to the voyage as a “watershed” moment for the cruise industry, which has been hard-hit by a pandemic that was first marked by devastating outbreaks on luxury cruise ships.
In his earlier posts, Sloan had noted the “gauntlet” of testing and temperature checks that passengers had been required to undergo to embark, which was intended to create a “COVID-free ‘bubble’” at sea. Passengers were required to test negative several days before boarding, the day of boarding, and a few days after boarding. However, it appeared that the cruise was using a rapid test by Abbott—the same test used at the White House. Experts have raised questions about the accuracy of these tests at detecting asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections and thus their use for general screenings.
But, unlike at the White House, Sloan noted mask wearing by passengers and crew on board, as well as social distancing, which was easy to maintain given that the boat is carrying only 53 of its 112-guest capacity. Additionally, off-vessel excursions have exclusively been to empty beaches or catamaran trips for snorkeling, Sloan noted.
“In some respects, SeaDream I is the perfect vessel for cruising in the keep-away-from-me era of the coronavirus,” he reported early Wednesday. “A tiny fraction of the size of a typical cruise ship, it’s designed for an upscale, yacht-like experience that revolves around outdoor lounging on its sun decks, water sports off its retractable marina, and landings by Zodiac at remote beaches or other uncrowded locales.”
He added: “For many of the 53 passengers who booked this trip, the COVID crisis at home has quickly become a distant memory.”
But that distant memory was back by lunch time. Sloan reported later on Wednesday that ship captain Torbjorn Lund announced over the intercom around noon that a passenger had tested positive. Late Thursday, Sloan reported that Lund announced four more cases.
Since the first case, passengers and non-essential crew have been confined to their rooms “in an abundance of caution,” SeaDream said in a press statement. The company added that it is awaiting authorization from the Barbados government to disembark guests safely.
Ars reached out to SeaDream but was directed to the press statement. A representative did confirm the numbers of passengers and crew reported by Sloan. At the time of publishing, the company had not yet confirmed the additional four cases.
“We are working closely with local health and government authorities to resolve this situation in the best possible way,” SeaDream’s executive vice president Andreas Brynestad said in the statement. “Our main priority is the health and safety of our crew, guests, and the communities we visit.”
Brynestad and SeaDream noted that the company had “operated successfully this season in Norway, completing 21 voyages in June.” In August, a different cruise line operating in Norway had been hit with a COVID-19 outbreak, sending at least four people to the hospital and hundreds into quarantine.
The COVID scare aboard SeaDream I comes at an awkward time for the cruise industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted a no-sail order for the industry on October 30, issuing on that day a phased-framework for conditional sailing in US waters. However, media reports in September revealed that CDC director Robert Redfield had originally wanted to extend the no-sail order into February 2021 but was overruled by the Trump administration.
On November 3, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade group representing 95 percent of the industry, announced it was extending a voluntary suspension of cruises through December 31. The association said its members will spend the time preparing safety measures outlined by health experts and the CDC.
In response to SeaDream’s current situation, a CLIA representative told Ars over email that:
Unfortunately, no setting is immune from the virus but our members are fully committed to implementing enhanced mitigation and response measures to minimize risk and protect public health. Although specific details about this incident are yet to be determined, we have learned from the more than 200 sailings since the beginning of July that when enhanced protocols are in place and rigorously followed, they are working as intended to effectively mitigate the risks associated with introduction and transmission of the virus onboard. The industry’s focus on enhanced protocols and risk mitigation continues as more is learned about the virus and technology advances.