Let's talk about that cruise ship finding

It's not as alarming as some publications made it sound.

You might have seen the headlines:

CDC says coronavirus survived in Princess Cruise ship cabins for up to 17 days after passengers left

Coronavirus survived for 17 days in empty cruise ship cabins, CDC report says

But the headlines are misleading (at best) and likely outright wrong. The CDC did indeed inspect the cabins of the Diamond Princess, and it did indeed find traces of the virus 17 days after passengers disembarked. More specifically, though, what they found were traces of viral RNA. (Coronaviruses use RNA, rather than DNA, as their genetic material.)

And there’s a big difference between finding bits of viral RNA and finding viable virus. Over the last two decades, advances in genetic sequencing technology have revolutionized microbiology. Sequencing has gotten fast and cheap enough that scientists can now take, say, a sample of pond water or mountain soil and sequence all the genetic material it contains. Then they can use those sequences to identify the specific microorganisms that are present. (In my book, I discuss a team of researchers who are doing this with house dust to create a census of all the critters that happen to be living, mostly unseen, in our homes.)

The drawback of this approach, though, is that all it tells you is whether a certain bit of genetic material is present — it doesn’t tell you whether the organism that it belongs to is living or dead. (If you put a bee in a blender and sprinkled the pulverized remains across the counter, you’d certainly find bee DNA in your kitchen. But you’d probably be pretty surprised if the bee reassembled itself, rose from the dead, and stung you.)

So let’s take a look at what the CDC report actually said:

SARS-CoV-2 RNA was identified on a variety of surfaces in cabins of both symptomatic and asymptomatic infected passengers up to 17 days after cabins were vacated on the Diamond Princess but before disinfection procedures had been conducted (Takuya Yamagishi, National Institute of Infectious Diseases, personal communication, 2020). Although these data cannot be used to determine whether transmission occurred from contaminated surfaces, further study of fomite transmission of SARS-CoV-2 aboard cruise ships is warranted.

To be honest, that’s not terribly surprising. We know that the ship was a hot spot for Covid-19, and it makes sense that there would be traces of the virus in travelers’ cabins, especially before they were disinfected. But that doesn’t mean that there was viable virus on those surfaces — or that touching them would have made you sick.

Of course, we can’t entirely rule out that possibility. But there’s no evidence to support it either, and given what we know about other coronaviruses, it seems unlikely.

That doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. It is likely that the virus can survive on various surfaces for hours, at least, so it’s still important to disinfect things that you touch frequently and to wash your hands thoroughly. But given what we’re facing, clear and accurate science communication is really important, and fear-mongering still has costs.

Indoor Ephemera


Not coronavirus-related:

  • Americans are obsessed with big homes, which is contributing to a housing affordability crisis.

  • At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, the athletes were housed in buildings that were designed to be converted into a minimum-security prison. It did not go well. A fascinating piece of history I knew nothing about.

  • Speaking of prisons: “The architect Deanna Van Buren designs civic spaces that are healing alternatives to correctional facilities.”

  • Small design interventions can make a home more comfortable for autistic children. (If this story interests you, note that I have a chapter in my forthcoming book about designing for neurodiverse populations.)

  • The Making of Murphy’s Bed: Urbanization and the Rise of Fold-Down Furniture.”

  • This is like a real life SimCity:

    The bootstrap aspect of Oosterwold goes way beyond aesthetics: Energy, sewage and roads must also be figured out by residents, leading at least one person over the years to ask Mr. Maas, “Are you crazy?”

    The HomeMaker software is intended to allay concerns. “We made it to calculate the ground price, the amount of water, the amount of solar cells needed,” Mr. Maas said. “It also figures out how to make a road — not only for the homeowner but for those who come after them.”

Bonus Interspecies Animal Content

Aquariums are closed, so some other critters are getting a chance to see the sea life:

Stay safe and be well,


The Great Indoors will be out in June! But you can pre-order it now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, IndieBound, Powells, or your local independent bookstore.

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