Tufton urges tourist ships to help detect coronavirus among passengers

Senior staff reporter

Friday, February 28, 2020

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Cruise lines are being urged to become more proactive in detecting and preventing the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19).

The call has come from Jamaica's Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton who yesterday acknowledged the sub-sector's importance to tourism but argued that it presents a different type of challenge than the airline industry, given the large number of passengers cruise ships carry for long periods.

Dr Tufton was speaking against the background of Jamaica's refusal to allow MSC Cruises' Meraviglia, carrying 6,100 people, to dock at Ocho Rios, St Ann, on Tuesday, after it was discovered that a sick crew member had been isolated on-board.

“These are like floating villages and have the capacity and infrastructure on-board to develop better health care facilities. They could help in the fight by coordinating with the WHO (World Health Organization) and with the jurisdiction they travel to, to have the test kits on-board so that when persons fall ill they can actually administer the test or coordinate with the destination which they are going to, where those test samples may be collected and submitted in the shortest possible time so that those results can take place,” he told the Jamaica Observer after hosting a news conference at which he and health officials updated the country on Tuesday's decision.

He stressed that it is impractical to expect countries, particularly those with limited resources, to fully take on the responsibility of dealing with suspected cases on cruise ships, given the volume of people the vessels carry, the short turnaround schedules, and the risk posed to countries.
“We have to have a different approach. Cruise lines need to do more other than depend on the respective countries to validate or to test suspected cases, or to quarantine and allow the rest of passengers to disembark,” Dr Tufton argued.

Meanwhile, he said given the importance of cruise shipping to the region, discussions on the issue have started at the Caricom level and with the Caribbean Public Health Agency.

“We had a virtual meeting yesterday and a subcommittee, which Jamaica is a part of, was recommended to continue discussions to try and establish a common protocol,” he said, pointing out that ultimately countries will act in their best interest, bearing in mind that cruise ships pose a unique risk.
The health minister defended the decision to turn away the Meraviglia and said the Government could take action against the vessel for a breach of the Quarantine Act of 1951.

According to Dr Tufton, the ship's management had failed to report a health-related threat to port health officials here.

“It should be known that the vessel, having had a requirement under the quarantine laws to report any health-related threat that is on-board prior to landing, did not make such a report. In fact, they filed a report which didn't give any indication that that was the case. When the health team actually boarded the vessel they discovered that there was an individual in isolation on the vessel. That, in effect, is a breach of the protocol, in that the health team should have been advised before the vessel landed on our shores,” he outlined during the press conference.

He said, having discovered the situation, the officials requested a clinical history from the vessel's management in order to make an appropriate assessment, but it took some time to receive the information.

Dr Tufton said given the risk, the short turnaround time that was left before the vessel was scheduled to leave the port, as well as the protocol breach, “a decision was taken that it was in the best interest of our country and our people to ask the vessel to continue on to its next port”.

Yesterday, MSC Cruises issued a statement denying the claim that no report was made to the Jamaican authorities ahead of time, stating that it is “extremely disappointed” with the events that unfolded.

According to the cruise line, it provided “detailed medical records to the local health and national authorities ahead of its arrival as per normal protocol”.

MSC Cruises has also criticised the decision taken by the Government of Grand Cayman, which was its next port of call after Jamaica, to deny the ship entry. It said the authorities had refused disembarkation at George Town without reviewing the ship's medical records.

“In both instances, the ship was effectively turned away simply based on fears,” MSC Cruises stated.

Yesterday, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported official sources as saying that 82,560 people have been infected worldwide and 2,813 have died.
The number of deaths in mainland China — excluding the semi-autonomous territories of Hong Kong and Macao — stands at 2,747, out of 78,824 cases. Over the previous 24 hours, 433 new infections have been recorded there.

In AFP's latest count, 66 people have died outside mainland China since the start of the epidemic, out of 4,063 people infected, with 863 new cases.

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