Sonoma County coronavirus patient was passenger on Princess Cruises ship
A Sonoma County resident sick with the coronavirus at a local hospital had taken a Princess Cruises line from San Francisco to Mexico in February, the second ship owned by the cruise company linked to confirmed cases of the infectious disease.
The local resident had been aboard the Grand Princess ship that departed Feb. 11 from the Port of San Francisco and returned Feb. 21, county health department spokesman Rohish Lal confirmed Tuesday.
Dr. Celeste Philip, the county’s outgoing public health officer, is leading an investigation to find other people who may have come in contact with the patient - the first person living here to contract COVID-19 - and may have been exposed to the virus within the county.
The patient had taken a shuttle from the San Francisco port to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. Special focus is being put on finding other passengers who also took the shuttle, Lal said.
Local health officials delayed confirming the name of the cruise ship for about 36 ?hours after announcing Monday the county resident had tested positive for the illness.
The patient is the second with a confirmed case of coronavirus being treated at a county hospital, both recent Princess Cruises ship passengers. The other case involves a person transferred in late February to a local hospital from Travis Air Force Base in Solano County. That patient tested positive for the virus after sailing on the Diamond Princess ship in Japan.
County officials Tuesday continued to decline to publicly disclose which hospital or hospitals are treating the two patients here, claiming health privacy laws bar them from revealing the information. The stance diverges from public health and government officials in other cities, counties and states that have openly discussed their respective cases of coronavirus patients. For example, nearby Solano County health and government officials have talked publicly about staff members exposed at NorthBay VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville by a patient being treated there and later transferred to UC Davis Medical Center.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Tuesday confirmed a veteran with the coronavirus was being treated at the veterans hospital in Palo Alto, according to the New York Times.
A city of Santa Rosa spokeswoman said county officials haven’t even told city officials where the two coronavirus patients are being treated.
The county’s three main hospitals in Santa Rosa - Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, Sutter Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa Memorial - are the only local medical centers with the appropriate equipment, rooms and isolation areas to treat a patient with coronavirus, Lal said.
County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she knows where the patients are being treated, but has been advised by county counsel and the health department that health privacy laws bar disclosing the locations.
“What is going to be helpful in keeping the largest members of our community members safe?” Zane said, indicating that will be a critical part of the discussion at a Board of Supervisors special meeting this week on the local public health emergency declared Monday by county health officials.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who also knows where patients are being treated, said she wants the county to provide as much information it legally can to the public about incidences of coronavirus here, but she defers to legal advice the county has received about privacy laws.
“It’s critical to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Hopkins said, but “we do have to maintain patient confidentiality.”
Government transparency experts called county officials’ nondisclosure position an extraordinary interpretation of the federal health privacy law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that bars health care providers from disclosing personal information about patients.
“I would say it is an extremely aggressive use” of the law, said Glen Smith, litigation director for California’s First Amendment Coalition. “If there’s no way of linking this information to a specific individual, the statute really doesn’t apply.”
Meanwhile, Santa Rosa resident Suzi Schultz said Tuesday she also was on Grand Princess, and wonders now whether she has contracted coronavirus because she returned home sick with what she assumed was the flu or strep throat.
Schultz, 59, said she is feeling much better, but is concerned by what she views as a dangerously slow response by county health officials to what could be a COVID-19 outbreak on a ship with thousands of passengers like her. The ship can carry ?2,600 guests and 1,150 crew members, according to the company’s website.
Her calls to local health officials weren’t returned until her doctor called the department.
Schultz, who opted to quarantine herself until Friday, the 14-day mark since she returned home from the cruise, said, “Why hasn’t anybody reached out sooner from the county or the cruise ship (company)? I sit here befuddled by the situation.”
A Princess Cruises company spokeswoman reached early Tuesday said the company’s chief medical officer had contacted Sonoma County’s health department, but had not yet been informed whether the patient in the hospital here with coronavirus had been a passenger on one of their cruises.
The county’s investigation of the local resident’s virus case is only one inquiry being led by a network of federal, state and local public health workers trying to determine who may have come into close contact with the person, Lal said.
But a spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday he didn’t think the federal agency had yet been tapped by California public health officials to assist in any investigation into a case of coronavirus with a person who had recently traveled on a cruise ship and was hospitalized in Sonoma County.
There were 118 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and nine patients died nationwide as of Tuesday night. The virus has infected more than 93,000 people in at least 76 countries since originating in Wuhan, China, in January. Nearly 3,200 people have died worldwide, including six who were passengers on the Diamond Princess ship in Japan.
Princess Cruises operates a fleet of 17 ships, including the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, that sail to more than 300 destinations, according to the company’s website. Its San Francisco line offers a 10-day trip from San Francisco to Mexico that takes passengers through Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.
Staff writer Tyler Silvy contributed to this report.