The Grand Princess — a cruise ship containing at least 21 people infected with the novel coronavirus — is scheduled to dock in Oakland, California on Monday, but the Trump administration does not yet have a fully-fleshed-out plan for dealing with the ship’s more than 3,500 passengers, according to top administration officials.
US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson appeared on ABC’s This Week on Sunday to give updates on the administration’s handling of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus first observed in China. When pressed by the show’s host, George Stephanopoulos, on how the administration planned to deal with the Grand Princess, it became clear that the federal government is still working to create a transportation, testing, and treatment plan for the ship’s passengers.
“I don’t want to preview the plan right now,” Carson said, when Stephanopoulos asked if he could outline the administration’s strategy. “I think it needs to all come from a solitary source. We shouldn’t have 16 people saying what the plan is — particularly when it hasn’t been fully formulated.”
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams also acknowledged plans are still being worked on during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday.
“The plans are still being developed,” Adams said. “But I want people to know that we are not going to put infected people into communities. Infected people will be quarantined, will be isolated appropriately so that we can make sure we’re not putting communities at risk.”
The fact that the Trump administration did not already have a plan for a coronavirus outbreak onboard a cruise ship is striking considering this is not the first such occurrence. It is true that the situation aboard the Grand Princess has developed quickly — passengers were alerted to a Covid-19-related death tied to the ship Wednesday — but the Grand Princess’s sister ship, the Diamond Princess, faced a similar disease outbreak in early February.
The Diamond Princess was not in US waters as the seriousness of coronavirus cases onboard became apparent, but there were American citizens on the ship, and the Trump administration has faced a lot of criticism over how it handled those citizens. In particular, it was criticized for the way it repatriated Americans trapped aboard the ship — it flew infected individuals home in the same plane as those who were not, a decision Director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy Michael Osterholm called “one of the cruelest human experiments I’ve seen in my entire career.”
President Donald Trump has made it clear he is sensitive to the criticism his administration has faced over its coronavirus response, but the comments of Carson and Adams would make it seem as if the administration has drawn few lessons from the troubles of the Diamond Princess. And the comments also suggest the administration has not used the month since the first confirmed coronavirus case was announced aboard the Diamond Princess to formulate a standard protocol for dealing with other coronavirus outbreaks on cruise ships.
Briefly, the state of the coronavirus outbreak aboard the Grand Princess
The Grand Princess was on a 15-day San Francisco-to-Hawaii trip when, on Wednesday, passengers received the news that a prior passenger had died of the coronavirus, according to CNN. The 71-year-old man had been on the same ship from February 11 to 21 on a round trip cruise from San Francisco to Mexico, and 62 people who were on board for that cruise were also on the San Francisco-Hawaii trip.
The ship was initially supposed to return to port on Saturday, but concerns over the virus led to its docking being pushed back until Monday. It currently is off the coast of California, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom arranged for helicopters to deliver a limited number of testing kits to the ship on Thursday. On Friday evening, Vice President Mike Pence — who is in charge of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response — announced that of the 46 people tested, 21 were found to be infected with Covid-19, 19 of those people being staff members.
The ship will dock in Oakland Monday, a site chosen because the city has docks that can accommodate cruise ships, and because it is easier to seal off than other ports in the state, according to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
Unlike the federal government, the California government has shared the details of its plan to test and, if need be, treat the nearly 1,000 California residents on the cruise. California’s Office of Emergency Services said all sick passengers in need of urgent care will be taken to hospitals in the state; those Californians not requiring immediate care will be taken to state facilities for testing and quarantine, according to CBS News. Those passengers not in need of urgent care, who are not Californians, will be the responsibility of the federal government, however, and it is not yet clear how administration officials will handle them.
And the crew — about 1,100 people — will have to stay on the ship. After the customers disembark, the crew will be sent elsewhere until a set quarantine period is over. It is not yet clear where the ship will be sent after it leaves Oakland.
Trump’s handling of the Grand Princess cases is exactly why his response to coronavirus is being criticized
On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted a summary of his complaints about how the media has reported on his handling of the coronavirus, arguing journalists have cast the response in an unfairly negative light. To make his case, Trump wrote that his administration had a “perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan” — and about an hour later, Carson and Adams admitted that, with respect to the Grand Princess, that was not at all the case.
We have a perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan at the White House for our attack on CoronaVirus. We moved VERY early to close borders to certain areas, which was a Godsend. V.P. is doing a great job. The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to make us look bad. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 8, 2020
This lack of planning is exactly why members of the media — and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers — have been critical of the administration’s response. And both the president’s tweet and his earlier statements about the ship are examples of what many experts, such former director of the USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance Jeremy Konyndyk, have said is the biggest problem with the president’s coronavirus response. That, as Konyndyk told Vox’s Alex Ward, Trump has “made it primarily about himself.”
In his Sunday morning tweet, Trump credits his administration with closing borders, a measure Vox’s Dylan Scott and Brian Resnick have explained wasn’t very effective against the virus in the US.
And at a press conference at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday, Trump said he didn’t want to bring the Grand Princess’s passengers back to land because doing so would increase the official count of US coronavirus cases.
“I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” Trump said. “I’d rather have them stay on, personally.”
Statements like these, and like the one the president made in his tweet, make it appear as if he views the coronavirus primarily as a political rather than health-based issue. In doing so, he undercuts the seriousness of the situation, and would seem to indicate he plans to make choices based on what would look best politically rather than what would improve health outcomes.
And so, despite what the president claims, the media is not “doing everything possible to make us look bad.” The criticism is meant to help the administration think of ways it can improve its response in order to protect lives. And so long as administration officials admit to putting together plans at the last minute, as they have with the Grand Princess situation, that criticism will continue.