Oakland (US), Mar 10 (AFP) A coronavirus-hit cruise ship has docked at California's port of Oakland, where infected passengers will be the first of thousands to disembark in what officials called an "unprecedented and difficult" operation.

The Grand Princess docked on Monday shortly after noon (1900 GMT) in the San Francisco Bay after days stranded at sea.

Those needing medical attention will leave the ship first, followed by the rest of the 2,421 passengers on board.

"None of the passengers who disembark will be released into the general public," said a statement from Governor Gavin Newsom's office.

Fences have been put up at the port, and buses and flights were lined up to transport passengers. They will go into treatment, be placed in quarantine, or returned to their home countries in the case of non-US residents.

The ship, which has 21 confirmed novel coronavirus infections among its 3,500 passengers and crew, had been idling off the San Francisco coast since Wednesday.

"Passengers with balconies are whooping and waving at dock workers onshore," said Carolyn Wright, 63, of New Mexico, from on board as the ship drew close to port.

Tents and a line of portable toilets were set up on the Oakland quayside as officials prepared for the operation.

The US Coast Guard sent teams "to assist with medical triage, screening and interviews, and prioritizing those who require the most acute care," Princess cruises said in a statement.

Passengers will be tested at their onward destination to avoid delays, it added.

Those who don't require acute care will be quarantined for 14 days at US military bases in California, Texas and Georgia.

Crew will remain onboard and the ship will leave San Francisco Bay, the company said.

Canada on Monday became the latest country to call on its citizens to avoid cruises due to coronavirus, as Ottawa prepared to repatriate nearly 240 Canadians aboard the Grand Princess.

Wright earlier Monday said the mood had been lifted on board by the prospect of finally reaching land, and guests were briefly allowed to leave their cabins.

Some couples danced on deck as others walked laps around the huge ship.

"It really feels wonderful to have gotten out and stretched our legs," Wright told AFP.

"I feel kind of energized and happy. It just makes you feel like OK, things are happening and things are now moving."

She added: "Hopefully things will be smooth from here on."

Newsom said Sunday the operation to bring passengers ashore would be a "two-three day process."

"We are still working out the enormity of complexity of making sure we prepare the site and... prepare for a quick turnaround," he said.

President Donald Trump said on Friday that he would prefer to keep the passengers confined on the ship because letting them off would increase the number of infections in the United States.

"I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault," Trump said, but added he would leave the decision to Vice President Mike Pence, whom he has appointed to head the coronavirus taskforce.

The United States has recorded at least 22 deaths from the coronavirus and 607 confirmed cases, according to a Johns Hopkins tally. (AFP)

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