Though he had no symptoms of the coronavirus, Jim Lemaire assumed that after disembarking the Grand Princess cruise ship on March 11—where he and 3,500 other passengers had been kept in near-captivity in San Francisco Bay after a former passenger tested positive and later died—he and everyone else aboard would be tested for the disease.
That was what Vice President Mike Pence told the country March 6, after the California Air National Guard delivered 46 tests to the ship via helicopter and 21 people (19 crew and two passengers) tested positive. "All passengers and crew will be tested for the coronavirus," the vice president said at the time.
And that was what health authorities in Nevada, where Lemaire and his spouse, Helga Myles, live, told the public before allowing the 49 Nevada residents to go home. “The passengers must be tested for COVID-19 prior to boarding the secure flight back to Nevada,” the state Health Department said March 10.
But as Lemaire and several other passengers told VICE, testing simply did not happen. Tests weren’t even offered to them, despite these public promises.
Lemaire and Myles did not receive a test until they’d been given leave to return home to Nevada from a few days’ quarantine at a military base in Southern California and had their nasal cavities swabbed in a drive-through test administered by local health officials. Another couple who returned home to Las Vegas to self-quarantine said that they haven’t been tested at all—and that county health authorities say it won’t be necessary until they exhibit symptoms, in direct contradiction of what authorities announced when the Grand Princess was in the news.
“It would have been nice to get tested to be sure that we don’t have it,” said Tom, one half of that couple, who asked VICE not publish his last name due to privacy concerns. “We don’t want to infect anybody, if we do have it.”
“When we arrived back in Reno, they were really surprised that there were some of us that had not been tested,” Lemaire said via email on Monday. “I think the state/county people were all told that we had been tested.”
Buzzfeed and the New York Times have reported that passengers in quarantine at military bases were unable to get tested despite obviously being exposed to the virus. But perhaps more concerning is that Lemaire and other passengers were sent home, back into their respective communities, without the testing they had been promised.
On Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted an unnamed federal official who said that passengers were discouraged from requesting or receiving COVID-19 tests by other federal officials, adding to a confusing picture of what kind of treatment and advice Grand Princess passengers were receiving even as their plight was making headlines.
Taken together, these accounts show how one episode in an unprecedented public health crisis has been handled in a haphazard and ad hoc fashion. Had Grand Princess passengers been tested in a timely way, it would have given policymakers and public health professors more information about how the disease operates.
“It’s not the ideal thing to do,” said George Rutherford, a physician and professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine.
Allowing passengers to depart for their homes and self-quarantine is a “missed opportunity to better understand the natural history of the disease,” Rutherford said. “Understanding that ratio between symptomatic and asymptomatic is important.”
The more obvious potential problem is disease control. “If I’m the county health officer” where passengers are returning, “and they send someone back to me that I know has been heavily exposed and might be infected, you know, I want to know that and I want to do something about it,” he said.
“I would have thought discretion would have been the better part of valor, and that you’d have gotten people tested, and only let them go [home] if it was negative,” Rutherford added.
Meghin Delaney, a public information officer for the Nevada Health Response Center, did not respond to an email seeking comment on Nevada passengers’ claims that they re-entered the state without COVID-19 tests, contrary to the state’s order.
In an email, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Health and Human Services said passengers were “screened” while leaving the ship—according to Lemaire and other passengers, this consisted of a temperature check—and then “offered COVID-19 testing” during their quarantine at military bases (this is in contrast to Lemaire and Tom’s reported experiences).
“However, the federal government cannot coerce anyone to be tested,” the spokesperson added.
Beyond showing symptoms, no clear picture has emerged as to what metrics were used to select passengers for testing. “We heard some of the people got tested, and some didn’t,” said Tom, who remains self-quarantined in his Vegas home.
After leaving quarantine onboard the Grand Princess and riding a packed bus and then a packed airplane to quarantine at Marine Air Corps Station Miramar, Lemaire and other passengers were told that testing would be optional, but still available.
“Once you arrive at the military installation, you may choose to be tested for COVID-19,” a masked CDC official told Lemaire’s planeload of passengers before it arrived at Miramar, according to a video recording he shared with VICE. “Be advised that if you test positive, CDC may legally detain you.”
That may have compelled some passengers to decline tests—but as far as Lemaire knows, few of his fellow passengers even had that option, because the offer of testing never materialized.
Lemaire kept in touch with passengers from California, quarantined at Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, about an hour northeast of the Bay Area. Those passengers “are not being tested, just having their temps taken,” he said. “So either there are no kits or they are trying to keep the positives low.”
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