UnCruise’s first sailing was recalled to port on Aug. 4 after a passenger returned a positive coronavirus test. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

UnCruise’s first sailing was recalled to port on Aug. 4 after a passenger returned a positive coronavirus test. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Rapid testing essential to future of industry, UnCruise CEO says

With the ability to quarantine guests before boarding, the industry could ensure clean boats.

With the UnCruise passenger who had a confirmed case of COVID-19 cleared by a subsequent negative test, the company’s CEO is looking to the future.

“It’s very apparent that his bug is a tough one, in the sense that it doesn’t test well. We know that the test that was used in Juneau is the gold standard,” said UnCruise CEO Dan Blanchard in a videoconference. “We also know false negatives are easier to achieve.”

Blanchard expressed complete confidence that the initial confirmed positive test was accurate, and said it was unlikely that it was a false positive.

[Coast Guard rescues injured boy hiking near Haines]

“We are definitely siding with science,’ Blanchard said. “The problem isn’t with the people, it isn’t with the state. It’s a bug we don’t understand.”

Passengers aboard the Wilderness Adventurer were asked to isolate for a week before flying up to Juneau, Blanchard said.

“We asked guests to be in isolation for a week before departing,” Blanchard said. “There was a lot of messaging that went out and we believe they stood by that.”

All guests, except for four, have departed Juneau. Those four, which contact tracing determined had been in close contact with the confirmed case, are in 14-day isolation in Juneau, paid for by UnCruise.

A tough hit

“We’re not able to operate the 10 trips we had planned,” Blanchard said. “It’s a loss of millions of dollars for my company, and that’s a tough pill to swallow.”

The cancellations, which were driven by passengers canceling their cruises, left only two sailings on the schedule, which were promptly canceled after the confirmed case in Juneau occurred.

“I think the industry is trying to figure out what it can do, what it’s willing to do,” said Mila Cosgrove, the City and Borough of Juneau’s emergency operations center incident commander, in a phone interview. “They had great protocols onboard. It’s unfortunate that this happened. It’s a testament to their onboard protocols and the willingness of their guests to abide by those protocols that there was no more spread aboard.”

For Blanchard, it’s about looking forward, and figuring out how they can still operate in the new environment.

“You have plan A, B, C, D,” Blanchard said. “Plan A is always the easiest. But as you go down the list, it gets tougher and tougher.”

UnCruise has sailings tentatively scheduled for Hawaii in the winter, but it’s too early to tell if they’ll be viable, Blanchard said.

“We are still hoping to start in Hawaii sometime this winter,” Blanchard said. “Right now that’s a question, but we’re hoping.”

Rapid testing would help identify sick passengers so they could be beached and the rest of the ship could sail on in the future, Blanchard said. But getting the infrastructure and the more rare and expensive rapid test kits is the issue.

“We’ve kind of wended our way through the Assembly process. We’ve put in purchase orders for one or two testing machines,” Cosgrove said. “There’s a huge backlog of orders for those machines. To make matters even slightly crazier, the whole testing world has evolved. Testing may not look anything now like it does now in the future.”

For now, Blanchard is sure that the small cruise industry is not beyond help.

“This is where I stand on the need for rapid testing that can be done locally. This is the environment we’re living in now, all of us,” Blanchard said. “Keep the faith, small business. Keep the faith, industry. Press for rapid testing.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or lockett@juneauempire.com.

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