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Coronavirus concerns stall cruise ship off California

SAN FRANCISCO — Thousands of people were confined to a cruise ship circling in international waters off the San Francisco Bay Area Saturday after 21 passengers and crew members tested positive for the new coronavirus.

The Grand Princess was forbidden to dock in San Francisco amid evidence that the vessel was the breeding ground for a deadly cluster of more than 10 cases during its previous voyage.

Meantime, Florida reported two coronavirus deaths — the first outside of the West Coast. Health officials said two people in their 70s who had traveled overseas died in Santa Rosa County in Florida’s Panhandle and in the Fort Myers area. Florida also raised the number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the new virus strain, from four to seven.

The U.S. death toll from the virus climbed to 16, with all but three victims in Washington state. The number of infections swelled to over 200, scattered across about half the states. Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska reported their first cases.

In California, state authorities were working with federal officials around-the-clock to bring the Grand Princess cruise ship to a non-commercial port over the weekend and test everyone for the virus. There was no immediate word on where the vessel will dock.

Two passengers on the ship said Friday night that the captain has notified them they are moving to a location 20 miles off the coast for easier delivery of supplies. The captain said a guest requires medical attention and may be airlifted out, the passengers said.

While health officials said about 1,100 crew members will remain aboard, passengers could be disembarked to face quarantine, possibly at U.S. military bases or other sites. That’s what happened to hundreds of passengers who were exposed to the virus on another cruise ship in January.

“Those that will need to be quarantined will be quarantined. Those who will require medical help will receive it,” Vice President Michael Pence said Friday as he announced that 19 crew members and two passengers had tested positive for COVID-19.

President Donald Trump, speaking Friday at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said he would prefer not to allow the passengers onto American soil but will defer to the recommendations of medical experts.

“They would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay but … I told them to make the final decision,” the president said.

“I don’t need to have the numbers (of U.S. cases) double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” Trump said in a Fox News interview. “And it wasn’t the fault of the people on the ship either. Okay? It wasn’t their fault either. And they are mostly American, so I can live either way with it.”

In the meantime, passengers aboard the Grand Princess remained holed up in their rooms as they awaited word about the fate of the ship. Some said ship officials only informed them of the confirmed coronavirus cases after they first learned about it from news reports.

Steven Smith and his wife, Michele, of Paradise, California, went on the cruise to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

The Smiths said they were a bit worried but felt safe in their room, which they had left just once since Thursday to video chat with their children.

Crew members wearing masks and gloves delivered trays with their food in covered plates and left them outside their door.

To pass the time they have been watching television, reading and looking out the window, they said.

“Thank God, we have a window!” Steven said.

The ship was heading from Hawaii to San Francisco when it was ordered Wednesday to keep its distance from shore so 46 people with possible coronavirus symptoms could be tested. On Thursday, a military helicopter crew lowered test kits onto the 951-foot (290-meter) ship by rope and later flew them for analysis at a state lab.

Health officials undertook the testing after reporting that a 71-year-old man who had been on a February voyage of the same ship to Mexico contracted the virus and died this week at a hospital in Placer County in Northern California. Others who were on that voyage also have tested positive in Northern California, Minnesota, Illinois, Hawaii, Utah and Canada. A “presumed positive” patient was self-isolating at home in Nevada, health officials there said.

Some passengers who had been on the Mexico trip stayed aboard for the current voyage — increasing crew members’ exposure to the virus.

Another Princess ship, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined for two weeks in Yokohama, Japan, last month because of the virus. Ultimately, about 700 of the 3,700 people aboard became infected in what experts pronounced a public-health failure, with the vessel essentially becoming a floating germ factory.

Hundreds of Americans aboard that ship were flown to military bases in California and other states for two-week quarantines. Some later were hospitalized with symptoms.

An epidemiologist who studies the spread of virus particles said the recirculated air from a cruise ship’s ventilation system, plus the close quarters and communal settings, make passengers and crew vulnerable to infectious diseases.

“They’re not designed as quarantine facilities, to put it mildly,” said Don Milton of the University of Maryland. “You’re going to amplify the infection by keeping people on the boat.”

He said the fallout from the ship quarantined in Japan demonstrates the urgent need to move people off the ship and into a “safer quarantine environment.”

The president pro tem of California’s state Senate agreed.

“We have to be better than just leaving all these people out at sea,” Toni G. Atkins said in a statement. “There are Americans on board, families, seniors, and others all wanting nothing more than to be safe and to get treatment if they need it.”

On Wall Street, stocks swung wildly as fears mounted over the potential damage to the global economy from factory shutdowns, travel bans, quarantines and cancellations of events big and small — a list that grew to include the world-famous South by Southwest arts festival in Austin, Texas, which was set to begin next week.

Stanford University announced that it was cancelling in-person classes for the final two weeks of the winter quarter and instead holding classes online. The school also said large-group events were being adjusted or canceled.

Trump has signed an $8.3 billion measure to help public health agencies deal with crisis and spur development of vaccines and treatments.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 100,000 people and killed over 3,400, the vast majority of them in China. Most cases have been mild, and more than half of those infected have recovered.

Most of the dead in the U.S. were from suburban Seattle’s Life Care Center nursing home, now the subject of federal and state investigations that could lead to sanctions, including a possible takeover of its management. Washington state has the nation’s biggest concentration of cases, with at least 70.

Thirty medical professionals from the U.S. Public Health Service were to arrive Saturday at the nursing home to help care for patients and provide relief to the exhausted staff, said Dow Constantine, executive in charge of King County in the Seattle area.

“We are grateful the cavalry is arriving. It will make rapid change in the conditions there,” he said.

The nursing home was down to 69 residents after 15 were taken to the hospital in the preceding 24 hours, Constantine said.

Some major businesses in the Seattle area — including Microsoft and Amazon, which together employ more than 100,000 people in the region — have shut down operations or urged employees to work from home. The University of Washington called off classes at its three Seattle-area campuses for the next two weeks and will instead teach its 57,000 students online. And a comics convention next week in Seattle that was expected to draw about 100,000 people was canceled.

Associated Press writers Janie Har and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco; Gene Johnson, Martha Bellisle and Carla K. Johnson in Seattle; Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami ; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; and AP researcher Monika Mathur in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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