Passengers on the virus-hit cruise ship moored near Tokyo began disembarking on Wednesday, after a controversial two-week quarantine that saw more than 500 people infected with the new coronavirus originating in China.
The Diamond Princess, operated by Carnival Corp, has been quarantined after arriving in the port of Yokohama on Feb. 3, after a man who disembarked in Hong Kong before it traveled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus.
More than 540 people have been infected with the virus on the liner, which originally carried some 3,700 passengers and crew. Many of those infected have already been transferred to hospitals. About half the passengers are Japanese.
Japan ranks second in the world after China in number of confirmed virus infections due to the ship infections.
Japan has come under fire for its handling of the cruise ship quarantine, although top government officials have defended the quarantine and onboard testing operation.
“Unfortunately, cases of infection have emerged, but we have to the extent possible taken appropriate steps to prevent serious cases, including sending infected people to hospital,” public broadcaster NHK quoted Health Minister Katsunobu Kato as telling a parliamentary panel.
Around 500 people were expected to disembark on Wednesday, a Health Ministry official said, with the entire process completed by Friday.
NHK said that those who had roomed with passengers who tested positive would have to stay on the ship for another 14 days from the time the infected roommate left.
Crew members, who have been sharing rooms, would move to separate rooms and undergo health checks, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
The United States evacuated more than 300 nationals on Monday on two chartered flights and six South Koreans and one Japanese spouse flew to South Korea on Wednesday morning on a chartered flight.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the quarantine “may not have been sufficient to prevent transmission among individuals on the ship.”
The rate of new infections on board, especially among those without symptoms, is a risk, it said.
More than 100 Americans remain onboard or in a hospital in Japan, the CDC said. After disembarking from the ship, passengers or crew will be required to wait 14 days without symptoms or a positive coronavirus test before traveling to the United States, the CDC said.
Asked why the Americans faced an additional two-week quarantine but Japanese leaving the ship did not, Suga said it was based on the advice of Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID).
The NIID said that based on the experience of those who returned from Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, on charter flights earlier this month, there should be no obstacle to using public transport and the like if people had shown no symptoms such as fever for 14 days and had tested negative for the virus during the period their health was under surveillance.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday there were 220 Australians on board and that a total of 169 would be evacuated. Those evacuated will be flown to Darwin, where they will be quarantined for 14 days.
An Australian passenger said Australians had been told they would be prescreened starting on Wednesday morning and taken to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in the evening for an expected departure early Thursday.
“They told us to pack warm weather clothes for the two weeks in Darwin but who will have that after a cruise in the Japanese winter?” passenger Vicki Presland told Reuters.
A captain’s announcement on the liner said that Hong Kong passengers would also be evacuated over the next 24 hours and that according to information received, a Canadian charter flight would arrive on Friday morning.
Italy, Israel, Britain and Taiwan were also preparing to evacuate their nationals, said Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Besides those on the cruise liner and returnees brought home from Wuhan city, about 60 cases of domestic infections have been confirmed in Japan, including 22 in Tokyo, NHK public broadcaster said.
Amid worries about a contracting economy, the spread of the virus has prompted Tokyo to curb the size of public gatherings and some companies are telling employees to work from home.