The MS Roald Amundsen becomes a Petri dish

Several readers informed me about the coronavirus outbreak on the MS Roald Amundsen, the ship I was on last fall as a lecturer for five weeks in Antarctica, Patagonia, and the Falkland Islands. The article below is from Ars Technica (click on screenshot), and there’s another from the BBC.  It’s a sad tale of something unspecified gone wrong, but I was informed of it by the ship’s parent company, Hurtigruten, several days ago. I was hoping against hope that I’d be invited back to the Antarctic to lecture again this year, but in light of this, there’s no way that’s going to happen. (I was hoping against hope that they’d have a vaccine by then, and, if not, even musing about whether I’d take a chance and go unvaccinated, which is how much I love the Antarctic.)

The kicker is that in the picture below, taken on November 19 of last year, I was on that ship! 

It’s not clear what went wrong (the company says it didn’t follow its procedures properly), but on a trip to Svalbard (Spitzbergen), 41 passengers (the BBC says 41, Ars Technica says 34) and crew tested positive for Covid-19, and hundreds on board are being quarantined back in Norway. Four have been hospitalized. Hurtigruten was the the first cruise line in the world to resume trips while the pandemic was still going on, and the results weren’t pretty.

Ars Technica reports:

MS Roald Amundsen is run by the Norwegian firm Hurtigruten, which in mid-June became the first cruise ship operator in the world to resume voyages amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hurtigruten assured travelers that it followed national public health guidelines and touted safety precautions for passengers on board, including social distancing, increased hygiene and sanitation protocols, and a vow to sail at no more than 50 percent capacity.

And indeed, the ship was loaded with hand sanitizing machines and we were repeatedly instructed last fall, before the pandemic hit, to keep our hands sanitized and clean. The company is, after all, well known for the scientific nature of its trips: there are no casinos, bells, or whistles: just landings ashore and science lectures, three of which were given by me. I loved it. One would think that of all cruise ships, this one would be the safest. But apparently, with the crew from East Asia and passengers from all over Europe, there would be no way to keep an infection off the ship. And so it happened.

In the wake of the outbreak, the company has suspended all cruises. Norway’s government has also banned cruise ships carrying more than 100 people from disembarking passengers at its ports for 14 days.

The conclusion may seem foregone. The pandemic kicked off with multiple outbreaks on cruise ships, leaving some vessels desperately seeking ports that would accept them while isolating vacationing passengers in their tiny cabins. The most notable was the Diamond Princess, which docked in Yokohama, Japan on February 3 and held passengers and crew in quarantines for weeks. Of the 3,711 passengers and crew originally on board, 712 became infected with the coronavirus and 13 died.

Mistakes

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that cruise ships are uniquely prone to infectious disease outbreaks because of the social nature of the ships and the fact that they bring travelers from many places together. The CDC has issued a “No Sail Order” for cruise ships that is set to last until September 30, unless it is rescinded or extended.

Still, Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldamsaid seemed to pin the outbreak onboard its ship to rule-breaking. “A preliminary evaluation shows a breakdown in several of our internal procedures,” Skjeldamsaid said in a statement to the BBC.

“This is a serious situation for everyone involved,” he went on. “We have not been good enough and we have made mistakes.”

Coronavirus cases onboard MS Roald Amundsen span two voyages, one that departed July 17 and another that departed July 24. There were 387 passengers total on the two legs, of which five have tested positive so far. Local authorities scrambled to track down passengers who had already disembarked, making sure that they went into quarantine and received testing.

Of the 158-person crew, 36 have tested positive. Thirty-two of the infected crew are from the Philippines and the rest are from Norway, France, and Germany. Crew were tested prior to leaving their countries, but were not required to quarantine before coming aboard.

And so it goes. They’ve canceled all cruises until at least late fall, and I suspect winter is off, too. The hope for a return to Antarctica was keeping me going, so for me this is a major downer. But not as much of a downer as for the passengers and crew who have the virus, four of whom are hospitalized. I wish them a speedy recovery. And since my experience with Hurtigruten was totally positive, so much so that I’d lecture on any of their adventure trips, I wish the company well, too, and hope it finds out what happens, ensures that it won’t happen again, and resumes cruises only when it’s (nearly) absolutely safe to do so.

Better days to come, I hope. One of my photos showing the ship:

 

16 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted August 4, 2020 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    There’s no way to do medium to large group activities these days. What a world we’ve become.

  2. Posted August 4, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Regardless of the precautions an organization takes, there’s always a chance that someone infected very recently fails to test positive and gets on the ship, in the meeting, etc. We’ve seen so many people seem oblivious to this possibility, saying things like “We know we’re safe as we are all tested daily.” All that guarantees is that they will know immediately once someone is infected but they may have transmitted it to others in the meantime.

    • eric
      Posted August 5, 2020 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      This seems like the likeliest explanation. Johns Hopkins Medicine reported a month or two ago that the chances of testing negative when you recently acquired the disease (i.e. within the last 1-4 days) are quite high – maybe as high as 67%!

      So a reasonable scenario is that someone got the disease very close to boarding time, got their test before boarding, tested negative, and thus carried it on board.

      • eric
        Posted August 5, 2020 at 7:30 am | Permalink

        I should add that this is not necessarily because the tests are bad or inaccurate. From what I understand, one factor making it hard to lower the false negative rate is that early in the incubation period you just don’t have the disease in many of your cells, so a swab is less likely to sample an infected cell. While there may be other contributors to the false negative that we can address – and thus improve test accuracy – realistically, if this bit about not having the disease in many cells is true, I doubt we’ll ever get the false negative rate for newly infected people down below single digits.

      • Posted August 5, 2020 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        I shouldn’t have said “regardless of the precautions” as they could have quarantined everyone for two weeks. Of course, it is unlikely a cruise ship line would require that of its boarding passengers.

  3. Mark R.
    Posted August 4, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Also sheds a prescient light on what will happen if Trump and his henchmen force schools to open. The only clear way out of this in America is to get rid of Trump and the GOP. Once Dems have control of the levers of government again, we can begin the long trek back up the hill to safety, common sense and survival.

  4. Posted August 4, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Despite not wanting to, I was invited on a Disney cruise last year and it was not as bad as I thought it would be though they should allow kids to swim in the big pool for exercise. They restrict them because of alcohol, but if the kids will swim in the morning then there should be no restriction. And in Disney’s defense hand sanitation is quite important. Still the ship begs to have contagions spread.

    It is unlikely I will ever go another cruise, vaccine or not.

  5. Posted August 4, 2020 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear! The only hypothetical way to do these sorts of things is to completely quarantine all personal and passengers for I guess 2 weeks. And apply accurate tests early and often.

  6. phoffman56
    Posted August 4, 2020 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    My wife and I were also on Hurtigruten for a trip up to Svalbard about 2 years ago, on one of the two other ships mentioned in news about this.

    It is ironic that Norway may very well be the best by far of ‘western’ countries over a few million population, measured in deaths/million.

    I can well see Hurtigruten continuing (maybe even required to continue) their (about 150 year old) duties of tying the entire west coast of Norway together with transportation of goods and people. But what the hell were they doing having tourists, from the rest of the world as well, and the usual getting off the boat in ports? One of their standard trips is taking you right round from Bergen to the Russian border and back, stopping at one collection of ports going and a different set coming back, so as not to visit in the middle of the night. I hope a bunch living in those little ports don’t now get sick because of insisting that kind of tourism is at all appropriate in present circumstances.

    We had gone in to ‘nature’ places mostly on dinghies, and not to ports, except for the biggie (wow–2,300 people live there) on Svalbard to then fly back south, and one other. I assume they haven’t started again doing those trips.

    There is a Canadian company doing Hurtigruten-similar Antarctic trips and also charging a fortune, unless you’re fortunate (well, not really!) like Jerry. But I assume it’s on hold.

    • phoffman56
      Posted August 4, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      Just occurred to me that above I’d need to not count Australia and New Zealand as ‘western’ countries.

  7. jezgrove
    Posted August 4, 2020 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I have to admit, I’ve never understood the appeal of cruises (trips to Antarctica excepted, as I can’t envisage an alternative given the particular circumstances) and they regularly seem to be in the news for on-board outbreaks the illnesses like norovirus etc.

    • jezgrove
      Posted August 4, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      D’oh: “outbreaks of” .

  8. Ken Pidcock
    Posted August 4, 2020 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    “This is a serious situation for everyone involved,” he went on. “We have not been good enough and we have made mistakes.”

    Oh, man, from whom do I wish I had heard that. Anyway, the photograph you ended this post with is seriously cool.

  9. Posted August 4, 2020 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I really didn’t expect this from Norway. Taking any cruise now is a crazy idea.

  10. Posted August 5, 2020 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    One would think that of all cruise ships, this one would be the safest.

    It probably is. Even before coronavirus, cruise ships regularly seemed to problems with outbreaks of various diseases. It’s the nature of the experience i.e. hundreds or thousands of people crammed together in close proximity.

    I’m actually surprised that anybody is running cruises at all right now and I don’t expect the industry to recover from this.

  11. Posted August 6, 2020 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    When I first read this, I was truly shocked that a Norwegian cruise line would take this risk. The environment of the ship is just against it. And how can you ensure that all
    workers and guests are following the regimen for keeping safe?

    I am very sorry that you won’t have a chance to lecture on this ship again this year on a cruise to the Antarctic. Several articles I’ve read lately indicate be may be in for several more years of masks, distancing and staying secluded more. I hope that’s not so.


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