The Port of Astoria is expected to host at least 35 cruise ships and around 75,000 passengers this year, starting with around 3,000 on the Grand Princess arriving March 31. The widespread outbreak of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that appeared late last year in Wuhan, China, could lead to a repositioning of even more ships to the West Coast.
But local health and cruise officials caution against panic.
Astoria typically hosts cruise ships on day stops while transiting north or south along the West Coast between major ports.
“We suspect an increase of calls this spring due to redeployment of cruise ships providing Asian itineraries,” Bruce Conner, the cruise ship marketer for the Port, wrote in an email. “There are several new Pacific Northwest cruise itineraries this spring in the making to accommodate the redeployed hardware.
“Keep in mind all future arriving cruise ships to Astoria will have called on previous U.S. and Canadian ports, adhering to all COVID-19 inspections and requirements before arriving into our beloved Astoria/Clatsop County,” he wrote. “We daily monitor the progress of COVID-19 through our cruise industry networks and remain confident we will continue to protect our communities to include canceling ship calls if necessary.”
Vessels destined for a U.S. port are required to report to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention any crew member or passenger showing one or more serious symptoms of a coronavirus. The U.S. Coast Guard has barred passenger-carrying vessels that had been to mainland China between mid-January and Feb. 2 from entering the U.S. for two weeks. Nonpassenger vessels were allowed entry, but their crews were mostly required to stay aboard.
Ellen Heinitz, a naturopathic physician and the county’s community health project manager, said nobody locally is being monitored for coronavirus as of Thursday. Earlier this month, a sailor was taken to Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria with a likely respiratory tract infection. Rumors spread about a local diagnosis of COVID-19.
“He actually was not very sick,” Heinitz said. “But all communication chains were followed. We all actually got together, talked about that incident and tightened all our systems even more. So we were definitely aware of that. And everyone agreed that it had nothing to do with COVID-19.”
Regardless of the coronavirus, Columbia Memorial has a plan for passengers and crew coming from oceangoing ships with communicable illnesses, said Kendra Gohl, a nurse and the hospital’s infection preventionist. The hospital includes a negative pressure isolation room to quarantine people with airborne illnesses, along with respirators, full-body suits and other protective equipment, she said.
Health officials are in a wait-and-see mode while the CDC gathers data and puts out guidelines to deal with COVID-19, Gohl said.
“I keep reminding people that this is just a new virus,” she said. “The process is still very similar to what we walked through as hospitals when we did H1N1, when we’ve done SARS and Ebola and MERS.”
Health officials have warned that the spread of COVID-19 throughout the U.S. appears inevitable. Symptoms can include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble.
“We want to reduce the fear, because this is not worse than any flu you see normally,” said Michael McNickle, the county’s public health director.
Schools in Knappa and Jewell closed last year for deep cleaning to stem flu outbreaks. The county has the power to close schools and quarantine people, McNickle said, but uses that power judiciously.
The hospital, county, state and health officials are in regular communication about developments with the coronavirus, McNickle said. They advise people to stay home if they are sick, cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer.
“Don’t listen to social media, because that’s not an accurate portrayal of what’s happening,” McNickle said.