Florida coronavirus cases traced to Nile River cruise. What is that?

45 people aboard a cruise ship en route to Egypt’s southern tourist hub Luxor had tested positive for COVID-19.
Nile river boat MS River Anuket docks in the city of Luxor in southern Egypt on March 7. The ship, carrying some 100 mostly foreign tourists was under quarantine after 12 people tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Nile river boat MS River Anuket docks in the city of Luxor in southern Egypt on March 7. The ship, carrying some 100 mostly foreign tourists was under quarantine after 12 people tested positive for the new coronavirus. [ MAGGIE MICHAEL | AP ]
Published March 14, 2020|Updated March 14, 2020

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The Nile River is the longest in Africa, flowing more than 4,000 miles from Lake Victoria in the south to the Mediterranean in the north.

It does not pass through Florida.

Yet over the past two weeks, the Nile seems to have been a major source of coronavirus in the state.

On March 7, the U.S. embassy in Egypt announced that 45 people aboard a cruise ship en route to Egypt’s southern tourist hub Luxor had tested positive for COVID-19, otherwise known as the coronavirus.

That same day, the Florida Department of Health urged anyone who traveled on a Nile River cruise in February to self-isolate upon their return to the United States. According to the department, anyone who toured in Egypt, Israel and Jordan between Feb. 4-18 may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday at a press conference in Miami that 10 of the state’s then 34 confirmed coronavirus patients had recently traveled on a Nile cruise. That includes, according to various reports: three people in Miami, one in Seminole County, and one in Santa Rosa County who has died. Other Nile-connected cases have popped up around the world.

“There wasn’t any type of overriding guidance about that part of the world,” DeSantis said. “Our health officials talked with the CDC, and they noticed that there were some people throughout the country who had also been on there, so the Florida Department of Health put out an advisory. And a number of people in Florida and beyond who were on Nile River cruises recently presented with symptoms.”

The New York Post has, through various media reports, pieced together a number of American coronavirus cases linked to the Nile cruises: A dozen in Texas, a handful in Maryland and California. Health officials in Canada have also linked infections to Nile cruises.

Two boats that cruise the Nile were quarantined this week. One that has received particular attention is the MS A’Sara, a 236-foot river boat operated by Egyptian company Extension Group.

A Miami man cruising with family aboard the A’Sara on Tuesday told the Associated Press they were quarantined in their cabin. They passed the time scrolling their phones and watching Fast and Furious, airing on repeat on one of the few available TV channels.

Authorities in Luxor planned to close that city to tourists Monday until medical experts can examine all hotel guests and cruise ship passengers in the area.

Not every tourist who’s gone to the Nile River in the past month has experienced symptoms.

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Vince McGilvra, the co-owner of Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, spent the past few weeks traveling in Africa and the Middle East with his wife, Bridget. They’ve spent the last 30 days in Egypt, staying most recently at an Airbnb on the Nile in Luxor. They are not part of a tour group or cruise.

McGilvra said by email they’ve seen very few tourists on this trip, and the locals they’ve encountered have been “healthy and happy.”

“We are feeling and doing fine,” he said. “Haven’t seen anyone in on our travels that was ill.”

But he said watching the news from afar was “surreal.” They’ve canceled plans to spend a night in Madrid, Spain, on the way home, instead booking a flight back from Jordan on Amman, Jordan next week.

“It is going to be a strange world I return to,” he said.

Even before the pandemic, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said cruise ships presented a “unique combination of health concerns” due to crowded, semi-enclosed environment that facilitate disease.

On a webpage dedicated to cruising in general, the agency says outbreaks on ships “can be sustained for multiple voyages by transmission among crew members ... or by persistent environmental contamination.”

Touch and droplets are the main routes of infection, but Qingyan Chen, a professor at Purdue University who studies ventilation and the spread of infectious disease, said there’s reason to suspect air conditioning systems could also circulate infected air, since filters used in cruise ships can’t filter particles as small as coronavirus.

Upper Nile River cruises have become increasingly popular in recent years as decades of security concerns that once kept riverboats away have been lifted.

Steven Gould, owner of Goulds Travel in Clearwater, said he books travelers on the cruises often. He said the boats are much smaller than ocean cruise ships and usually carry 100 to 200 passengers.

“Then there are the more local companies that don’t usually have the same cruise standards,” he said, “or maybe different amenities.”

Nile cruises usually last around three to seven days. A common itinerary for Americans is to fly into Cairo, the largest city in the Middle East with more than 19 million people, cruise to Luxor, then return to Cairo.

Approximately 200 riverboats are based on the Nile, according to the CDC.

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