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Carnival offers its cruise ships as makeshift hospitals during coronavirus outbreak


(Washington Post illustration; Enisaurus; iStock)

The world’s largest cruise operator on Thursday pitched its ships as temporary floating hospitals to authorities around the world who are struggling to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Carnival Corporation and its brands are calling on governments and health authorities to consider using cruise ships as temporary healthcare facilities to treat non-covid-19 patients, freeing up additional space and expanding capacity in land-based hospitals to treat cases of covid-19,” the company said in a statement.

Some ships from its lines, including Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and P&O Cruises Australia, will be available for use, the statement said. Cruise lines worldwide halted operations last week as the virus continued its rapid spread.

Carnival’s offer was not a full donation: “Interested parties will be asked to cover only the essential costs of the ship’s operations while in port,” the company said. Crew members would handle maritime operations, food service and cleaning, while, in this proposal, local government bodies or hospitals would take care of medical services.

The U.S. Navy is already preparing to send hospital ships to the harbors in New York and Seattle.

News of the cruise-ship suggestion first emerged during a news conference with President Trump early Thursday. He said Carnival Corp. Chairman Micky Arison had gotten in touch and offered to “make ships available” to dock in hard-hit cities like New York and San Francisco.

Trump did not offer details on how the ships could be used at the time, but said he would bring the idea up to the governors of New York, California and other states Thursday.

“You could increase places to stay, let’s say places to stay — if it works,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe people won’t want them.”

Cruise lines have been hit hard by the virus. At one point in February, a Princess Cruises ship, the Diamond Princess, had more people test positive than any country but China. That vessel was quarantined for much of last month in Japanese waters. Another ship, the Grand Princess, had a smaller outbreak this month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned people this week to defer cruise travel worldwide, after earlier targeting a similar message to people with underlying health conditions. The agency said anyone who has been on a cruise ship in the last two weeks should isolate themselves at home for 14 days after disembarking.

Carnival made no mention of those issues in its statement, instead highlighting the potential for ships to convert to medical facilities. The company said ships could function as hospitals, with up to 1,000 hospital rooms treating patients with less-critical conditions — not including covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Onboard communication networks could be used to connect patient-monitoring devices, the company said. Medical centers could house as many as seven intensive-care units, the statement said, and different medical functions could be set up on separate decks.

“The rooms also have bathroom facilities, private balconies with access to sun and fresh air, as well as isolation capabilities, as needed,” Carnival said.

Cruise ships have been used in times of crisis before. The Federal Emergency Management Agency contracted with Carnival Cruise Line to provide emergency housing and food to people affected by Hurricane Katrina on three ships from late 2005 until early 2006.

The solution was not widely praised, however: The New York Times reported in 2005 that many evacuees turned down the option, and displaced city workers and their families ended up using the space. And the terms of the charter deal — $236 million for six months — quickly came under fire, The Washington Post reported at the time.

A cruise line spokeswoman said in 2005 that the company would make no more money with that deal than it would have by keeping the ships in service, but that didn’t appease senators, who called for a chief financial officer to oversee post-hurricane spending.

“Finding out after the fact that we’re spending taxpayer money on no-bid contracts and sweetheart deals for cruise lines is no way to run a recovery effort,” then-senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said in a joint statement.

Carnival Corp. chief communications officer Roger Frizzell said that the current offer is different from times when the company provided ships and received the kind of compensation it would have from operating normally.

“Instead, we are literally donating our ships (facilities, rooms, beds, etc.) to help serve as temporary hospitals without any compensation request to make us whole,” he said in an email. “Instead, the costs that [we] would hope to recover are the reasonable and customary expenses that hospitals normally would incur if they were operating on land, such such as food and drinks, cleaning services, etc.”

This story has been updated with additional comments from Carnival.

Read more:

All major cruise lines halt sailings temporarily in response to coronavirus

Trump offers support for cruise lines during coronavirus outbreak — while asking them to stop sailing

Just went on a cruise? Stay home for two weeks, CDC says.

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