SINGAPORE - An elderly passenger found to have Covid-19 on board a Royal Caribbean cruise has since tested negative in two further tests, hours after the ship returned to Singapore.
In an update on Wednesday (Dec 9) night, the Ministry of Health said the 83-year-old Singaporean man's original sample was retested at the National Public Health Laboratory, and came back negative for Covid-19 infection. A second fresh sample tested by the laboratory also came back negative.
The ministry said the laboratory will conduct another test on Thursday to confirm the man's Covid-19 status.
Royal Caribbean had cut short the cruise to nowhere by a day, after the man tested positive on board the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship.
Ms Annie Chang, director of cruise at the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), on Wednesday said the man had reported to the on-board medical centre with diarrhoea, and took a mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test as part of on-board protocols.
"The passenger had taken a mandatory Covid-19 PCR test prior to boarding, and was tested negative," added Ms Chang.
An ambulance was spotted driving into the Marina Bay Cruise Centre at about 2pm before stopping at the vehicular ramp next to the cruise liner. A person, fully clad in white personal protective equipment (PPE) including shoe covers, was helped into the ambulance by someone clad in blue PPE.
It then left at about 2.20pm. About 40 minutes later, passengers on Quantum of the Seas were informed that the Covid-19 patient was no longer on the ship.
In an updated statement at 4pm, Ms Chang confirmed that the passenger was taken to hospital for further testing. She said that as part of existing infection control protocols, the remaining passengers and crew on board had to remain on the ship until contact tracing was completed.
They also had to remain on the ship until Genting Cruise Line’s World Dream completed boarding of all passengers for its next sailing, which was around 6pm.
This was to prevent any intermingling between passengers or crew from both ships, she added.
The first passengers were seen leaving the ship at around 7.50pm.
Passengers had their temperatures taken before leaving the vessel. They were placed in groups - comprising 10 to 25 people - with specific departure times to reduce crowding. The last groups disembarked around midnight.
In an update at 11.30pm, Royal Caribbean announced its decision to cancel its four-night cruise set to depart on Thursday.
"The health and safety of our guests and crew are of utmost importance to us," it said.
The entire crew will undergo PCR tests on Thursday, it added, and the ship will also go through deep cleaning and disinfection after all guests have disembarked.
The vessel, with 1,680 guests and 1,148 crew members on board, arrived in Singapore at 8am on Wednesday after turning back on day three of a four-day cruise to nowhere.
The ship had isolated all guests and crew who had close contact with the guest. All of them tested negative for the coronavirus.
Ms Chang said that as part of safety protocols, the passenger was immediately isolated and his initial close contacts were identified and isolated as well.
"Those close contacts have since tested negative following PCR testing, and further contact tracing is ongoing. All on-board leisure activities also ceased immediately and passengers were asked to stay in their cabins."
She added at 4pm that the close contacts of the affected passengers who were identified and tested negative for Covid-19 would be taken to a designated government quarantine facility.
The ship's captain had confirmed the incident via an announcement at about 8.10am when the ship arrived in Singapore. "It's important that you know that you are safe on board and we have a good plan in place to maintain your health, safety and comfort," he said.
He had previously informed guests at about 2.45am that the ship would be returning early. He also instructed all guests to remain in their cabins.
Ms Chang said emergency response plans had been activated according to guidelines, including immediate isolation of close contacts, contact tracing and deep cleaning of the ship.
She added that all passengers underwent a mandatory Covid-19 test prior to boarding, and stringent hygiene and safety measures were implemented throughout their journey.
Royal Caribbean last week resumed three- and four-night Ocean Getaway cruises as part of a safe cruising pilot programme announced in October by the STB. Cruises under the programme cater only to Singapore residents and do not have ports of call. The resumption of cruises is part of efforts to reboot the cruise industry, which has been largely on pause because of the pandemic.
Capacity on the Quantum of the Seas has been halved from more than 4,000 passengers.
Mr Ronald Tam, who was on the ship with his wife and three children, aged between two and eight years, said the situation was orderly.
"We have been told to remain in our rooms until we get further instructions. Hot breakfasts and water were delivered to all rooms," added the 43-year-old. He said he was caught off guard by the announcement (of the early return to Singapore), which was made in the middle of the night.
"But then again, there are still likely to be a few Covid-19 cases circulating in the community, which is why maintaining safe management measures is necessary.
"It's important for the protocols to be established ahead of time so they can act on them, as Royal Caribbean, STB and the Ministry of Health have done thus far," added Mr Tam.
In a health advisory issued to cruise passengers, the MOH said the affected passenger's contacts would be placed on quarantine or health surveillance. Other people on the ship will be required to monitor their health for 14 days from the date of disembarkation and undergo a swab test at the end of the monitoring period.
"During this period, you may continue with your usual activities, including going to work or school," the ministry said.
Royal Caribbean will contact passengers from a week after disembarkation with the details of their swab appointment at a designated government swab site.
Ms Angie Stephen, managing director for Asia-Pacific at Royal Caribbean International, said the ship was finalising the contact tracing process, then it would get clearance from the MOH to disembark guests.
"Those who are not close contacts of the confirmed case will be allowed to debark and take a rapid antigen test as per original procedure. They can then go home and will be advised to monitor their health for the next 14 days.
"After that, all guests will take a polymerase chain reaction test with the expense borne by Royal Caribbean," she added.
Secondary school student Kelis Lim, 15, was still on the ship with her parents as at 12pm. She said they had planned a family staycation at Fairmont Singapore from Friday but are cancelling the arrangement, as they worry they may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
"We are not close contacts of the Covid-19 case, but just in case we are asymptomatic and found to have the virus, it's better not to spread it to others," she added.
Mr Mah Chin Heng, who was on the vessel with his wife and her parents, said the cruise had not been a waste of time. His in-laws, who are in their 60s, celebrated their wedding anniversary on Wednesday.
"We were able to do all the activities we had planned for, such as rock climbing and watching the evening performance on board," added the 42-year-old.
Meanwhile, Ms Michelle Goh posted on Facebook updates of her experience on the cruise ship, to reassure family and friends.
She said staff have remained cool and cheery, adding that passengers are being looked after.
"People would have said things like 'Who asked you to go, etc?'. I booked in full faith of what the authorities have planned and I am sure that they have done all that is needed before they gave the green light."
Ms Goh said she was taking it as a "once in a lifetime experience".
Royal Caribbean said the guest who tested positive for Covid-19 and other people in the travelling party would get a full refund.
For the other passengers, the cruise operator will offer a pro-rated cash refund for the day missed at sea, and any remaining on-board credits will be refunded to guests as well.
Additionally, the cruise operator will also provide a day's worth of Future Cruise Credit for use on future trips.
The Quantum of the Seas has a hospital on board, complete with a PCR testing laboratory and intensive care units equipped with ventilators, where Covid-19 cases can be isolated and treated.
Pandemic safety measures include pre-boarding testing for passengers. Mask wearing is mandatory and passengers must have the TraceTogether mobile application or token on their person at all times.
Meanwhile, passengers of Genting Cruise Lines' World Dream who returned to Singapore after a three-night cruise to nowhere on Wednesday were told that they would be allowed to disembark as scheduled.
The vessel, with capacity halved to 1,700, was slated to leave again later on Wednesday for a two-night cruise. At about 11am, passengers of this cruise, originally set to depart at 9pm, were told via text message that the World Dream was leaving at 6pm instead.
The World Dream's safety regime includes a new real-time PCR machine on board that yields Covid-19 test results in 60 minutes. PCR tests are the most accurate ones for Covid-19 available.
There are also protocols to turn the 19-deck ship around in an outbreak. Sailing in the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea, the World Dream can return to Singapore shores in less than six hours, Genting Cruise Lines previously said.