UnCruise Adventures, an operator of small-ship cruises, had a passenger who tested positive for COVID-19 at the Juneau airport and it forced the company to cancel the cruise four days into it, and then to cancel its whole season, including four more Alaska cruises that were scheduled to take place over 10 weeks this summer.
The incident cost UnCruise Adventures millions of dollars and deprived many people of their planned trips. And it’s still not possible to say for sure if the passenger was really infected.
The test that came in positive was one of three. The other two, one before and one after the positive test, came back negative. The passenger never showed any symptoms. No one else on the ship tested positive or had symptoms. So, did he have the disease or not? As with so many things with the Coronavirus, the answer remains unclear.
The passenger in question, was tested before he left home, and the results were negative. At the Juneau airport he was tested again, along with anyone joining the cruise who had a lapse of 72 hours or more since they were tested.
But the results from the Juneau test were not available for a few days. By then, the 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer was out to sea with 36 passengers, honoring a 60 percent cap on occupancy. Three days into the 10-day cruise, when the ship reached a place where it could receive communications, a message came from the State of Alaska that one passenger had tested positive in the Juneau test.
The state put contact tracing into effect and the passenger and his four traveling companions were tested again on board. All the tests came back negative, including that of the passenger who had tested positive in Juneau. The company went into action implementing a contingency plan to prevent the spread of the disease.
The company curtailed the cruise, turned around and returned to port in Juneau, where the passengers were held in quarantine in a hotel at the expense of the cruise line. The crew quarantined on board ship. All passengers and crew were tested. All tests came back negative.
In a quick recounting of the essential facts: two out of three tests on the passenger, who had tested positive in Juneau, were negative. The passenger never showed symptoms. No one else on the ship tested positive. It certainly seems reasonable to surmise that the one test that came out positive was incorrect, a false positive. But Captain Dan Blanchard, the head of the company, is going with the opposite conclusion: the positive test was the accurate one.
As Meat Loaf once sang, from the layman’s point of view “Two outa three ain’t bad.” Beyond the two out of three negative test results, if you consider the fact that no one else was infected, it seems likely that the Juneau test was the aberration – the one part of the picture that doesn’t fit with the rest. But Captain Blanchard says, “It’s not that simple. I’m going with the science, the epidemiologists and the doctors.”
According to the experts, there is a much higher probability of false negatives than false positives. But, again, we are talking probabilities. That does not tell us for sure what happened in this individual instance. They say false positives are much less probable, but not impossible. That leaves a margin of uncertainty. We still don’t know.
At a media briefing, Captain Blanchard said he was going with the health professionals, though it was difficult for him to convey their line of reasoning effectively because he lacks their training and their vocabulary.
“I’m just a sailor who can barely read,” he said, though that is obviously not literally true.
“We stand with the doctors and epidemiologists,” he said. “They say the evidence indicates that it was a positive. That’s what we are standing on, for our own peace of mind. We tried to be open minded. The chance of a false positive is very low.”
As complex as this picture is, with all its various conflicts and ambiguity, on the most fundamental level it’s binary. The passenger was either infected or not. Either the positive or the negatives were incorrect. He can’t have been both positive and negative.
If he was not infected, then we have one false positive out of three tests. That’s it. We know there are false positives. That’s the end of the story. That’s one way to resolve the contradictions of the case.
It’s also possible however, as the doctors tell us, that the positive test was correct and the two negatives were the false ones. If that is our answer, then it shows that the ship’s efforts at preventing the spread were successful.
Even though the passenger did not display symptoms, if he was infected, he could have been contagious. If that’s the case, then it speaks well of the ship’s efforts to contain the spread. And it can give us confidence that even if a passenger on a ship is infected, it doesn’t necessarily mean the disease will spread throughout the ship.
Certainly, from an epidemiologist’s point of view, it was much safer to assume the passenger had the disease and that the positive result was the correct one. To assume the opposite would be to put other passengers and other contacts of the passenger in unnecessary danger based on our uncertainty. So that’s definitely the more prudent conclusion.
From the standpoint of UnCruise Adventures, the latter conclusion bears more fruit. It provides evidence that the mitigation practices were successful in containing the disease, if indeed the disease was present.
“The results were positive for the company,” said Blanchard. “The mitigation things we did obviously worked. We are going to be in a great place to operate safely.”
But ultimately, we are still choosing between two possibilities and we can’t be sure. We’ll have to continue watching, measuring, and testing to get more information and learn more about the disease and how to stop its spread.
One good result from all these months of COVID wreaking havoc, is that epidemiologists and doctors are increasingly learning how to understand and deal with this horrendous virus, how to live with it, and keep safe until some day when it can hopefully be eradicated, as small pox and polio were.
In a statement, UnCruise Adventures said, “UnCruise Adventures has provided some validation that there are safe sailing protocol options.”
So, if the positive test was accurate, it shows that the ship’s efforts to stop the spread was effective.
Unfortunately, at this point that is still an assumption without absolute proof, so we have to be careful what conclusions we draw from it. Lives are at stake.
So, what can we learn from it? What can we safely and surely conclude?
After suffering the loss of millions of dollars and the operation of cruises that are his lifeblood, Captain Blanchard says the country needs a coordinated national response to the COVID crisis and, more than anything, we need accessible and effective testing with rapid results to get this pandemic off our backs.
“What do we need going forward?” he said. “A vaccine would be wonderful. There are different rumors and a lot of hope for the first of the year. But that is fraught with its own problems, and it could extend for a long time. The worst-case scenario is that we’ll have to live with this virus for a long time.”
But even without a vaccine, what is needed right now, he said, is “reliable, rapid testing with a four-hour return or less. We know it’s out there, though it’s not available for companies of our size.”
Blanchard expressed hope that rapid testing will be available soon, but “even a rapid test doesn’t take care of it perfectly. It’s a tough situation, but that’s the world we live in.”
He called it “silly” that we don’t have a national policy “if you want to get the country open again.”
In the effort to get business rolling again, he said, a test that you have to wait three, four, five or six days for the result “has no value.” There is, however, “a lot of positive movement on rapid testing.”
But the old sailor retains a penchant for silver linings.
“Strict planning paid off,” he said. “We were able to act quickly, but that doesn’t mean this event has not been painful to our company and guests. Our policies held up and may be a footprint for future sailings and the industry.”
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.