Martha’s Vineyard couple returns after being trapped on Westerdam cruise 

Coronavirus concerns prompt questions to public health officials.

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The MS Westerdam docked in Juneau, Alaska in 2008. –Wikimedia Commons

Updated Wednesday, 7:15 pm

After more than two weeks of being stuck on the luxury cruiseliner Westerdam, which was rejected by several ports before successfully berthing in Cambodia, Tom and Dianne Durawa disembarked, boarded a flight, and returned home to Martha’s Vineyard.

In the days since the Durawas’ departure from the vessel, a Westerdam passenger has tested positive for coronavirus, casting doubts on the screening methods used onboard, and the infectious disease protocols applied to passengers who left the ship and traveled home.

In recent days, Holland America reported on a blog dedicated to Westerdam news that all passengers subsequently disembarking from the ship had been tested and none were found to have the virus. In Edgartown, the Durawas decided on their own to stay isolated at home for the two weeks following their return, according to an email they sent to family and friends. 

As of Tuesday morning, the World Health Organization has said 74,000 people within China have contracted the virus, with 1,870 deaths. Outside China, there have been 804 cases in 27 countries, resulting in five deaths. 

Edgartown health agent Matt Poole has been designated the primary point of contact for potential public health–related matters related to the couple, Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty told The Times. Hagerty said Poole is “working in tandem” with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). Hagerty said the couple have been deemed “low risk based on federal and state criteria.” 

“Based on them being low risk,” he said, “they have no restrictions on their movement. However, they’ve chosen to self-isolate as an extra precaution.”

He said federal and state criteria presently indicate “close personal contact with a symptomatic individual is required for transmission.”

However, he said the nature of the disease and elements known about it constitute “an ever-changing situation.”

Poole and other town officials have had conference calls with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and its parent company, Mass General Brigham, Hagerty said. Efforts will elevate if there’s a “situation development,” he said. To date, “no one from town hall has visited them at their home,” he said. 

Hagerty answered an email question about whether the couple’s travel route and travel modes once they entered the commonwealth were known. 

“We can’t speak on how they traveled to the Island,” he said.

The Westerdam left Hong Kong on Feb. 1, and was scheduled to end its cruise on Feb. 15 in Yokohama, Japan. During the cruise on the Westerdam, a vessel owned by the Holland America Line, reports from the cruise line website stated that 2,257 passengers and crew were screened for coronavirus on Feb. 10 by having their temperatures taken with an infrared thermometer, a method that has since been met with skepticism by some medical professionals. According to the New York Times, only 20 people on board the ship were actually tested for the presence of the virus before disembarking, “and that was because they had reported themselves to ship medical staff with various ailments.” 

In a phone conversation with Dianne Durawa on Wednesday, she reiterated to The Martha’s Vineyard Times that passengers underwent health checks on three different occasions. On each occasion, each passenger had their temperature taken, and were asked to report if they had experienced any symptoms. 

According to the New York Times, five countries refused to let the Westerdam dock, despite Holland America’s assurances that all passengers had been screened. On Feb. 14, the prime minister of Cambodia allowed the ship to dock in Sihanoukville, and greeted passengers as they disembarked.  

After docking in Cambodia, the Durawas wrote that they were cleared by the Cambodian health department and allowed to come ashore. They then traveled to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where they spent nearly an entire day waiting to return home. Holland America arranged all the Durawas’ travel back to the U.S.; the U.S. State Department was involved.

“We spent a long day at the airport in Phnom Penh, followed by 22 hours of flights from there through Dubai to Logan,” the letter read.

After hundreds of passengers had disembarked, one, an 83-year-old American traveling on to Malaysia, later tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the New York Times. The woman was not among the original 20 tested onboard. “Now health officials worry that what Cambodia opened its doors to was the outbreak, and that the world may pay a price as passengers from the cruise ship Westerdam return home,” the New York Times reported.

In an article published by Bloomberg News, Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at Hong Kong University, said that quarantining passengers after they return home is a reasonable precaution to take. Cowling said that false negatives are possible when testing for the disease, and infected individuals can be asymptomatic for long periods before symptoms surface. “There may be other people from the ship who have acquired the infection, didn’t show symptoms, yet are now returning home,” Cowling said. “Now that there’s a confirmed case, putting people who return home in quarantine is a natural and reasonable thing to do.”

When asked about the state’s response to returning Westerdam passengers, Massachusetts Department of Public Health spokesperson Ann Scales said in an email to The Times that the “local board of health would be taking the lead.” 

The couple have agreed to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days, with concurrent status checks every 48 hours to see if symptoms occur, Hagerty wrote in an email.

“Public and private healthcare professionals have been notified at every level, and the town will follow the guidance, recommendations, and protocol of the Mass. DPH epidemiologist,” he wrote. 

Sam Telford, the director of the New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory, in a conversation with The MV Times, agreed that the thermal scans, such as the ones administered to the Westerdam passengers, “aren’t terribly helpful,” as they will not necessarily point to someone who might be carrying the virus. 

When asked about the Durawas’ protocol, Telford said, “They’re doing the right thing. They’re self-quarantining,” noting that coronavirus is spread the same way as the flu. 

Edgartown health agent Matt Poole said in a phone call to The Times that Islanders should practice all the same personal hygiene precautions as they would to prevent the spread of influenza. “The real keys should be consistent handwashing, sneeze etiquette, basically some common-sense actions,” Poole said. 

Currently, Poole said, there is no reason to be concerned about coronavirus on the Island, but officials are following the advisories of federal health agencies. 

When asked if he knew how the Durawas had traveled to Martha’s Vineyard, Sean Driscoll, spokesman for the Steamship Authority, said, “Our enabling act would prevent us from disclosing [whether or not the Durawas traveled to the Island via the steamship]. We will be reaching out to [the Durawas] in light of the media reports. We have spoken with MVH to raise awareness of best practices.”

On Feb. 12, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital issued a travel alert for the disease, and said in a press release that infectious disease specialists, emergency management, occupational health, communications, and other leadership groups are working on fine-tuning emergency response. 

Communications assistant at MVH Marissa Lefebvre said the hospital doesn’t have any further updates on the spread of the disease since the press release.

Assistant airport director Geoff Freeman said the airport has not been advised of any precautionary measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but will act accordingly if any such advisory is issued.

30 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. Way to blow things out of proportion. More people have died of the flu this year. And yet no report on that. How many infected influenza people travel by steamship this past winter. But this is what you get from a tabloid news paper. Fiction and fake news. But hopefully a handful of subscribers will be miss informed by your reporting.

    • I find the article to be well written and informative. I like the MVTIMES and am a subscriber. Big pronouncements are not warranted at this time. Currently we do not know the severity or relative safety of the problem. I don’t enjoy reading silliness like the flue is worse, 10,000 (now 14,000) have died in this country this year. Please consider percentages. If perhaps 30 million people got the flu and 14,000 have died that is a death rate 20-40 times lower than the estimated death rate from coronavirus. We do not have enough information to know the correct numbers, but prudence dictates that we be very cautious. Some evidence shows that close contact is not necessary.

      Hand washing is good, but a simple sneeze can forcefully spray droplets 30 feet. Sit in a dark room with a single beam of sunlight and consider the dust motes floating around. Now imagine those aerosol droplets joining them and drying onto them. So all those people wearing dust masks are onto something, breathing is probably as dangerous as touching things. I dislike wearing a mask, but find it easier to keep my hands in my pockets than to stop breathing. Ask your self how many times you first noticed a cold beginning by feeling a sore or scratchy throat or an irritation in your nose. Your mucous membranes clean themselves, but they need moisture. Winter is bad because the heat dries the air and we close all the windows. Add humidity to your home air. Using some sort of nasal wash can help, especially after being in enclosed spaces with crowds. Personally I am one of those with widespread stage four cancer. My immune system is compromised from chemo and radiation and daily oral chemotherapy. I go to Boston often. So I have learned to be careful.

      It is better to be extra cautious with an unknown situation than to try closing the barn door after the horses have run off.

  2. Please take all precautions and remember that there are people with compromised immune systems on the island, ferry, local planes, etc., often traveling to and from medical treatment in Boston. The strictest methods are necessary to prevent a spread of this virus and no one should be immune from being tested and being quarantined if necessary. Most people are not capable of long term sanitary methods, humans are forgetful and in a hurry. We know that proper hand washing technique is needed and it is efficacious. There are a higher number of people on the island who have not been vaccinated, as well. They are more susceptible to flu and viruses. Please, everyone, be very careful and follow the guidelines of the experts. I do read the experts advice and follow it. Keep well, all.

  3. Well the SSA might not be able to disclose whether or not they took the ferry, but I can – I saw them on board last weekend. Glad to hear they’re back home, safe and sound, but I certainly hope they take precautions to ensure that they are indeed healthy before they risk spreading any possible infection.

  4. I feel bad for this couple, and wish nothing but good health for them. However, I feel like things could have been handled better and better precautions could have been taken to protect the rest of the island. Perhaps it’s the way the article makes it sound and there are details missing, but why weren’t more precautions taken given the severity of the situation? If they did travel on the boat were they allowed to get out and walk around or did they stay in their cars? It will be very unfortunate for the island if this virus spreads and effects many if it could have been prevented.

  5. I can’t say I’m thrilled with how they got back here, un-quarantined, on multiple flights around the world and boats. How long will they stay away from people, self-quarantined? Too little is known about this virus, how it is detected, and how it spreads. Did they take the SSA and then a local taxi to get home? It’s called a virus for a reason. This one is deadly.

  6. Shame on you, MV Times, for your incendiary headline and article. The Durawas, as well as the other passengers and crew of the Holland-America’s “Westerdam,” have been through enough already. They are self-quarantined, out of an abundance of caution and concern for their Vineyard family, friends and neighbors. Please listen to Matt Poole, Edgartown’s Board of Health agent, and wash your stupid hands. The flu is far more serious a threat than Covid-19 on the island.

    Dianne Smith, RN

  7. This is just the latest hype from the mainstream media. I remember SARS bird flue, swine flue ,Y2K and other nonsense promoted by the media hype. As pointed out by other commenters, the flu is more of an issue but since it doesn’t get the ‘scare factor’ in order to get viewers, the media won’t cover it. The same thing with the recent measles outbreak, that was generally limited to a few geographic areas due to certain religious groups failing to vaccinate their members but over-hyped by the media. You have a better chance of getting sick by using an ATM, credit card machine or filling up your car with gas, after these objects are touched by some inconsiderate slob who sneezes or blows their nose without washing their hands or eating in a restaurant lacking proper food handling preparations.

  8. A word of caution is in order perhaps. No one wants to over react, but a death is a death, flu or virus. Part of the reason the flu travels is because we are not as careful as we should be. I just read on a news feed that cremation trailers have been ordered into a city in China; that does give one pause. Wash your hands, wash you hands, wash your hands. I know it is difficult for workers who are paid hourly wages to stay home from work when ill; however, when we have a virus of which much is not known, wisdom must prevail. In no way, is this over reacting. Having a laissez faire attitude towards a disease, flu or whatever, that kills people, is not wise.

  9. Tom & Dianne Durawa. I wish them well. Nicest people in the world. Tom the old Edgartown schoolteacher & selectmen. Dianne, the best Edgartown elder affairs coordinator. I sensed this could happen to nice people somewhere. Getting shunned back home. I never thought this would happen to Tom & Dianne. Be kind. They just got back home from the vacation cruise of a lifetime. Give them their deserved respect…Tom & Dianne are innocent victims. This could’ve happened to you.

    • Paul– I don’t see anyone here “shunning” the Durawa’s . Even new news is not critical of the Durawa’s. He is only expressing concern about the lack of travel restrictions by authorities.
      What i see here is overwhelming support and well wishes for them. You are correct– these are very nice, well respected members of our community. They understand the gravity of the situation, and seem to be taking all precautions to avoid any chance of possible infecting anyone. I wish them well also.

    • I completely agree. Very nice people. It sucks that the newspaper has to write about it so insensitively. If either of them were to have contracted the virus and happened to spread it to others on the Island this kind of article only instigates negativity projected towards them and it is not their fault. They were probably so relieved and happy to be home after what they went through. I do wish better precautions were taken for the rest of our safety and our children’s safety, but trust that they used their best judgment. Anyone else feel like our local newspapers no longer have our community members best interest in mind? Another nice family being the subjects of a poorly framed insensitive article that could potentially do a lot of harm to them. Not right.

  10. Wow, what a great piece of reporting!

    Keep up the great work, MV Times. An amazing headline, the effort you take to keep the people you serve up to date on potential threats to them, protecting the the place they love via information, not making solid people of the community look bad based on sensationalism…these are all the marks of great journalism.

    You should be commended on your contribution to the keeping the Island you love informed, your unimpeachable editorial standards, your lack of subtle innuendo (send a letter to your your journalism schools for teaching you that life long lesson!) and resisting the desire for sensationalizing anything.

    Also, you don’t implicitly say this, but darn, you are right. These two, as some commentators point out, (Tom and Dianne?), seem to just go with whatever works best for them, thinking everyone else can go to heck.

    The island is a perfect protected bubble, without people like this who we know have been out of the country ruining things! When it comes to M.V., especially for these types, it seems they always take and do not give. Well done by you “journalists” and commentators! Great writing made this message very clear and had a an obviously profound influence on the commenters.

    You are also clearly on top of the facts, and have spent what looks like at a minimum, several minutes on gaining a real understanding. I am sure the Durawas (again, I do not know them, only by reputation and the “less than helpful” things people say they do for the Island, how they do not think things through and their general callousness for people in general, etc..) did not do what the multiple health workers, lawyers and governments of these countries (such as the USA), mandated and stated as the policy they wanted followed, based on all the expert advice given them. Some people…

    All I can hope is that whoever is on the MV Times staff (or those voicing very solid, informed, worldly opinions about this article via comments) is/are just as vigilant when it comes to paying attention to all those, gosh, now that I think of it, everyone, who may have been or is going to, oh, say, Logan Airport in Boston every day this week, last week and next month, and double checking on not just the SSA, taxis and Ubers, but all jets that have been across the world and are in potential contact with “the virus of the moment” in all dangerous places, that these people may have been to, on or near. If my knowledge of international airports is correct, this group contains the entire world.

    Please, please! screen (twice, ideally, and quarantine, for however long it takes) everyone who comes to MV on the SSA back from, oh, let’s say, Orlando, who may have the common flu (It has killed something like ~10,000 people in the US in the last 2 years alone! Good gracious! Lets stop this menace before it reaches Chilmark!

    I think we as an island community should do a better job making sure people/dogs/cats are screened before setting foot on our island, who admit (or, god forbid, may not admit!) that they have been to Lyme Connecticut and places like that. We can only stop these giant issues (SARS, Foot-In-Mouth, Asian Bird Flu, Zinka, Zumba, etc) with second guessing and sensationalism.

    Sorry for my poor grammar/spelling/ and outrage at these people with small minds and who are spreading disease.

    Best
    Jeff (O.B.)

    • I have no idea whether you’re being sarcastic or not in your comment, it’s very hard to follow. But your comments are the exact reason an article like this that lacks any sort of sensitivity or integrity, can do a lot of harm. The Durawas didn’t ask for what happened to them, and I’m sure they didn’t ask to be written about in the newspaper and have their private business shared with the whole community. It’s easy to judge but imagine how scary it would be to be stuck in a foreign country with this virus killing many people, with unsanitary practices lack of medical supplies etc etc. You would probably have done whatever you could to get home safely. The fact that they were caught up in this predicament doesn’t give you the right to attack them personally? “less than helpful” And have a general “callousness” for people in general?” Yes, they could have been more careful and not sat upstairs on the steamship, but this whole situation has been a bit of a s*** show worldwide. Mr. Durawa was a teacher at the edgartown school for years and spent his career helping students. Him and his wife are very nice people. Please don’t spread hate.

      • The Durawas contributed greatly to this story, so, though they did not ask to be written about, they were very concerned that the facts were reported correctly. We appreciate their time and their support in making the community feel safe.

        • They may have contributed facts but they have no say in “how” the article is written and the other information added in which definitely seems to cause a lot of alarm surrounding their situation when you read it. In my opinion it isn’t exactly keeping their best interest or privacy in mind, as well as some of the negative comments that were allowed through moderation personally insulting them, which is completely unnecessary and shouldn’t be allowed. Nowhere in the article does it state that they are “less than helpful people” and have a “callousness” towards people in general.

          • I actually went over it line by line with her to check the facts. Subjects of any news story don’t have a “say” in how we write things, otherwise readers would not be able to trust that we weren’t beholden to the subjects, instead of the facts. We do everything possible to check the facts, and verify them. As far as their best interest, or privacy, we’re dealing with a virus that is on the verge of becoming a pandemic, and the community has questions.

    • bill 627 — your comment is certainly the most deplorable example of closed minded “fear of others ” That I seen here in years. It is so “off the wall ” that I seriously wonder of it is total sarcasm ?
      if not, I am quite concerned about the implications of attitudes like this.
      We are a community. For you to ignorantly imply that the Durawa’s are in any way not concerned about their situation and the well being of the residents of this island, and are not doing everything they can to insure the safety of all us all is disgusting. Every person living on this island should be equally disgusted by your ignorant slandering of some of our finest citizens. Shame on you !
      If you are so concerned about this, please leave the island and take your lack of compassion and your ignorant opinions with you .
      the rest of us will stand ” Durawa strong”

  11. I’m certain that Bill627/Jeff (ob) is being sarcastic.

    Tom & Dianne Durawa, welcome home-sorry you were greeted with this nonsense.

  12. I read bill 627/Jeff’s words as pure sarcasm, up until the last line. It’s difficult to see a mention of people spreading disease as anything other than a straightforward remark, which made me rethink the comment’s overall intent. Maybe he will clarify. This situation must be stressful for the Durawa family, and I would hope we all wish them well. I appreciate that they contributed to the article.

    What I can’t grasp are the comments that make it sound like any concern about this virus is an overreaction. That’s dangerous thinking. The comparison to the flu doesn’t really hold water. Of course the flu is a serious problem, one communities have to address every year. One the CDC has been tracking longterm. Unfortunately, the validity of a particular disease doesn’t cancel out a new threat. It’s not an either-or scenario. COVID-19 is not entirely understood. We can’t stack domestic flu rates up against COVID-19 because Americans have not yet been affected by the known worst of the latter, nor has it even run its course elsewhere. There’s simply not enough data for comparative risk assessment. The goal should be to keep it that way.

    There are many Islanders, myself included, who are already dealing with medical issues that leave us at risk. Seems natural that we, along with everyone else, should be concerned. I agree with the poster who said, essentially, that being proactive is key. You don’t start worrying about a potential pandemic only after it becomes a full-fledged pandemic. We need to learn what we can now, from reputable sources, and implement strategies to keep this from getting out of control. The U.S. is not immune.

    This is not an Internet-fueled hoax or fake news. I understand why we tend towards skepticism nowadays. At times, it’s warranted. I really don’t think this is one of those times. Viruses have an impressive track record of spreading. The best we can do is stay informed and be meticulous about hygiene and public interaction. Many do not wash their hands long enough or thoroughly enough.

    • Aquinnah– another well written comment.
      You address the fact that some people will dismiss this as media hype. I wonder where people got the idea that most main stream news is lies ?
      I also wonder why people still support the occasional resident of the white house who tries to cut the budget for virtually every health agency in the U.S
      this pertaining to the CDC :
      “In 2018, Trump tried to cut $65 million from this budget – a 10% reduction. In 2019, he sought a 19% reduction. For 2020, he proposed to cut federal spending on emerging infectious and zoonotic diseases by 20%. This would mean spending $100 million less in 2020 to study how such diseases infect humans than the US did just two years ago.
      Congress reinstated most of this funding, with bipartisan support. But the overall level of appropriations for relevant CDC programs is still 10% below what the US spent in 2016, adjusting for inflation.”
      In addition
      “in 2018 the administration disbanded its own global health security team,” and
      “eliminated the National Security Council’s global health security and biodefense directorate”
      https://inkstickmedia.com/budget-cuts-have-made-the-us-less-ready-for-coronavirus/
      Forget his efforts to cut medicare, Medicaid and Obama care.

  13. The information in this article is needed for public awareness, a virus doesn’t care about its host’s past or present good deeds or bad, a virus just hunts for a host to infect so it may replicate ” A virus is a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea.[” wash your hands, do not go out if you have the symptoms as noted by the CDC ” For confirmed coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases, reported illnesses have ranged from mild symptoms to severe illness and death. Symptoms can include:
    •Fever
    •Cough
    •Shortness of breath
    CDC believes at this time that symptoms of COVID-19 may appear in as few as 2 days or as long as 14 days after exposure. This is based on what has been seen previously as the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses.” thank you.

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