The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has asked cruise ships off the coast of Florida to remain at sea, and to increase their medical capabilities, in order to deal with COVID-19 cases on board and reduce the burden on local medical resources. With most voyages canceled for the foreseeable future, many foreign-flagged cruise ships are berthed in Florida, or are drifting nearby, indefinitely. Many have a full or nearly-full crew, and growing illness among crew and passengers has been reported on multiple ships.
Passengers with moderate to severe symptoms recently were transferred to Florida hospitals from several ships, including Oasis of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, Costa Favolosa and Costa Magica. Sources at the Miami Herald reported that as of this past Wednesday, Miami’s Jackson Health System already had accepted 82 COVID-19 patients; Baptist Health reported it had accepted an additional 102 cases. Meanwhile, Baptist Health is preparing for a surge of additional COVID-19 cases in late April or early May.
“[This] recent increase in [medevacs] has placed, and is expected to increase, strains on local medical resources throughout the Seventh District AOR. Medical facilities in the port of Miami, for example, are no longer accepting medevac patients, due to limited hospital capacity, and it is expected that neighboring counties will follow suit,” wrote USCG Seventh District commander Rear Adm. Eric C. Jones. “The demand for medical services … is leading to the establishment of improvised field hospitals, whose capacities for dealing with critical patients is unproven at this time.”
Given this situation at local hospitals, Jones advised that foreign passenger vessels within the Seventh District AOR with more than 50 people on board should increase their supply of medical equipment and their complement of medical personnel, in order to support persons with an influenza-like illness (ILI) for an “indefinite period.”
“This is necessary as shore-side medical facilities may reach full capacity, and [so] lose the ability to accept and effectively treat additional critically-ill patients,” Jones said. He also reminded the ships’ masters that if they fail to report to the USCG the number and details of illnesses and casualties on board, they may be subject to criminal or civil penalties.
Rear Adm. Jones’ requests come as crew and passengers aboard the cruise ship Zaandam await confirmation that its crew and passengers will be permitted to disembark. Nine confirmed COVID-19 cases, plus 200 showing symptoms as of Thursday, are aboard. According to operator Holland America, “an estimated fewer than 10” people on board require immediate critical care, and the cruise line has secured treatment availability for them in Florida. Holland America reported that it expects that none of the others currently require local care. (But we will have to wait to see if that “assurance” proves reliable.)
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