Henderson couple at ‘very low risk’ for coronavirus after Asia cruise

The Southern Nevada Health District told a Henderson couple who returned home Sunday from an ill-fated Asian cruise that they are at “very low risk” to become ill with COVID-19 or to spread the coronavirus to others, even though another passenger aboard the MS Westerdam has been diagnosed with the illness, according to the couple.

Paulette Schaeffer said she called the health district Tuesday to ask if she and her husband, Joseph, should arrange to be tested for the virus, despite having no symptoms.

She said she was told by an infectious disease investigator that they should instead monitor themselves for symptoms such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and contact the district if such symptoms developed. She was not advised to remain at home or to avoid public places by the investigator, who said she posed a “very low risk” to the public.

This was welcome news.

“Who wants to be confined for another two weeks?” asked Schaeffer, a retired nurse. “As far as I felt personally, we were self-quarantined for 14 days” on the ship.

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For two weeks, the Schaeffers were aboard the Westerdam as it was turned away at port after port because of concern over the new virus that emerged in China. The viruse has killed more than 2,000 people, all but a handful in mainland China. Concern that the ship’s crew and passengers could carry the virus mounted after a stop in Hong Kong, where the virus had spread from mainland China, despite that there were no confirmed cases while passengers were on board.

Cambodia finally allowed the Westerdam to dock last week, and passengers were permitted to begin to disembark Friday after health screenings by Cambodian, U.S. and international authorities. Only passengers with symptoms were tested for COVID-19.

The Schaeffers were among the first groups of passengers to disembark at Sihanoukville, a city on the southwest coast of Cambodia, and begin their journey home.

Since then, however, a woman who had been on board the ship tested positive for the virus at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia.

As a result, the remaining 255 passengers and 747 crew on the Westerdam were required to stay on board as officials from the Cambodian Health Ministry completed testing for COVID-19, according to a statement Monday by Holland America Line, the cruise ship company. This testing process was expected to take several days.

Meanwhile, screening has been completed on passengers who had disembarked and were in a hotel in Phnom Penh. The first 406 tests have all come back negative, according to the cruise line.

The woman who tested positive remained in a hospital in stable condition as of Monday. Her traveling companion tested negative for COVID-19.

Since her return home, Schaeffer said she hasn’t avoided public places, but has only been to Costco so far to do some shopping.

“Aside from Sunday, I haven’t been out of the house, just because I have so much to do,” such as catching up on laundry, she said.

Schaeffer said the was asked by the health district to check in with them again next week.

It was unclear what specific health guidance, if any, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided to local health authorities regarding Westerdam passengers. Spokeswomen for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services and the Southern Nevada Health District said their agencies were following CDC guidance for monitoring travelers but declined to detail the guidance. A spokeswoman for the CDC suggested that a reporter contact the state health department for details.

In contrast, citing CDC guidance, the health district announced this month that it was requiring travelers returning from mainland China to stay home for 14 days, which is thought to be the incubation period for the virus, as well as to monitor for symptoms.

“In mainland China, you’re having extensive disease transmission,” a primary reason for requiring returning travelers to stay home in isolation, said Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UNLV.

He said it’s unclear whether the Westerdam passenger who became ill was infectious while she was aboard the ship, how infectious she might have been, and how many of the nearly 2,300 on board the ship she came in contact with.

Joseph Schaeffer recognizes that many people are very worried about the virus, though he takes a philosophical approach.

“You can’t protect yourself from everything,” the retired Las Vegas police officer said. “You have to go about living your life.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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