US directs ships to stay offshore if carrying COVID-19 passengers

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Washington, April 2 (IANS) The US Coast Guard has directed cruise ships carrying passengers infected with the novel coronavirus to stay off American shores “indefinitely” and prepare to give the patients medical care aboard the vessels.

The Marine Safety Information Bulletin said that all ships operating in US waters “with more than 50 persons on board should increase their medical capabilities, personnel and equipment in order to care for people who contracted COVID-19 or other influenza-like illness for an indefinite period of time”, Xinhua news agency reported on wednesday.

For foreign-flagged ships “that loiter beyond US territorial seas”, the mandate dictates that they should evacuate the passengers through — and seek support from — their countries of origin “prior to seeking support from the limited facilities in the US”.

In addition, vessels within US territorial seas “should report the number and condition of any and all ill persons on board” on a daily basis, according to the memo signed by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Eric Jones, whose district covers Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Puerto Rico.

Vessels or masters that “do not immediately report illness or death among on board personnel” could face civil penalties or criminal prosecution, the memo said.

Officials at federal, state and local levels have been debating whether to let the cruise ships dock at US shores, especially the Zaandam and Rotterdam — two vessels owned by Holland America.

There are more than 300 U.S nationals on board the two ships. Two of the four deaths were believed to be caused by COVID-19, nine people have tested positive for the virus and at least 190 more have reported symptoms, local media cited the company as saying.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said on Tuesday that the state’s healthcare system was too overwhelmed to handle patients aboard the Zaandam.

“Just to drop people off at the place where we’re having the highest number of cases right now just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said.

President Donald Trump said later that people are “dying on the ship”, vowing to do “what’s right. Not only for us, but for humanity.”

The overall number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US now stands at 216,515, the highest in the world, with a total of 5,119 deaths, according to date by the Washington-based Johns Hopkins University.