An American woman feared to have potentially spread COVID-19 to other passengers aboard Holland America Line’s Westerdam cruise ship does not seem to have the novel coronavirus after all, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed.
The false-positive is only the latest development in the Westerdam saga. After rumors spread that a passenger on board the Westerdam had coronavirus, the vessel was denied entry at ports in five different countries—even as the cruise line maintained that nobody on board was sick with COVID-19. Passengers celebrated when some were finally allowed to disembark in Cambodia in mid-February.
The tone changed dramatically, however, when news spread that an 83-year-old American woman—whom the cruise line said showed no signs of illness while on board—had tested positive for COVID-19 in Malaysia after disembarking from the Westerdam. Her diagnosis stoked fears that other people who had been aboard the boat—many of whom disembarked in Cambodia and then continued on to other destinations—may have unknowingly acted as carriers for the virus, potentially contributing to its spread worldwide. After news broke, passengers still on the ship were told to stay on board, and those who got off but stayed in Cambodia were directed not to leave the country.
Later testing on the American woman, however, came back negative for COVID-19. While the CDC has not tested the woman directly, a spokesperson confirmed to TIME that after the patient’s initial positive result, two subsequent tests came back negative. Follow-up testing on 1,500 other passengers aboard the ship also came back negative. “At this time, CDC considers passengers from the Westerdam to be at ‘no risk’ or ‘low risk’ of SARS-CoV-2 infection during the 14 days after their last exposure,” the spokesperson said.
It’s not entirely clear why the woman initially tested positive for COVID-19, though CDC officials have said she may have had another respiratory illness.
Cambodian news outlets reported that Malaysia’s health minister thanked the CDC for saying the woman never had COVID-19.
Despite the apparent false-positive, many of the woman’s fellow travelers are still exercising caution. One family told USA Today that they had been asked to self-quarantine for two weeks back home in England, while American Elly Chybowski and her husband, who shared a dining table with the woman on the Westerdam, are self-quarantining at their home in Wisconsin until Feb. 27.
“The disruption to the lives of so many is tremendous,” Chybowski told USA Today. “The emotional stress to all of us during the time of uncertainty before we got home is immeasurable.”
Tensions around sea travel are high, given that another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, has become a hotspot of the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 600 travelers on the ship contracted the disease, in part due to delayed containment measures on board. The CDC has since issued specific guidelines for managing suspected coronavirus cases on ships.
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme