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COVID-19 fears spike after woman let off cruise ship in Cambodia tests positive

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The feel-good story of how Cambodia allowed a cruise ship to dock after it was turned away elsewhere in Asia for fear of spreading the deadly virus that began in China has taken an unfortunate turn after a passenger released from the ship tested positive for the virus.

News over the weekend that an 83-year-old American woman who was on the ship and flew from Cambodia to Malaysia was found to be carrying the virus froze further movement of the passengers and crew of the MS Westerdam. Some are now in hotels in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, while others are still aboard the ship.

The American woman was among several hundred passengers who were flown out of Cambodia on Friday and Saturday. According to authorities in Malaysia, 143 continued their flights home from that country, while the woman and her 84-year-old husband, who was diagnosed with pneumonia, remained behind for treatment.

The virus has infected more than 71,000 people globally and killed more than 1,770, with the vast majority of the cases in China, where the outbreak began two months ago.

The dispersal around the world of passengers from the ship with possible exposure to the virus has sparked concern.

“I think now given that there is a confirmed case that is suspected to have acquired infection on board the ship, the other passengers should be asked to quarantine themselves at home and alert health authorities if they develop fever or respiratory symptoms within the 14 days since disembarkation,” said Professor Benjamin Cowling from the School of Public Health at Hong Kong University.

Dr. Gagandeep Kang, executive director of India’s Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, said it is unclear whether the woman’s infection would result in an outbreak in another part of the world.

“We will have to wait and see,” she said, adding that it would depend on where the woman got the infection, and at what stage of the infection she was in while in contact with other people.

The ship’s operator, Holland America Line, said in a statement Monday that Cambodian health officials were on board the ship testing the 255 guests and 747 crew who were awaiting clearance, and that guests currently staying at a Phnom Penh hotel had all been tested.

“At this time, no other guests or crew on board or at the hotel have reported any symptoms of the illness. Guests who have already returned home will be contacted by their local health department and provided further information,” it said.

The statement pointed out that the American woman who tested positive in Malaysia was not one of the 20 people on board the Westerdam who had reported to the ship’s medical centre during the cruise. All of those 20 have tested negative for the virus, it said.

The rest of the passengers and crew had health checks that included filling out a written health questionnaire and having their temperatures checked, which has become standard procedure for air and sea passengers considered at risk.

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