Israeli passengers were finally allowed to leave a cruise ship Thursday where they had spent over two weeks in quarantine off the coast of Japan as the deadly coronavirus steadily spread among those on board, infecting hundreds.
The Israelis were greeted on the dock by a delegation from the embassy in Tokyo, ready to whisk them away from the harbor to the airport where a specially chartered plane was waiting to fly them directly back to the country, Israel’s health and foreign ministries said in a joint statement.
Photos from the scene showed the passengers, wearing their vacation clothes and hauling suitcases, signing paperwork on the dockside at desks manned by officials clad from head to toe in protective clothing and wearing masks over their faces.
The plane is expected to land Friday morning at Israel’s Ben Gurion International airport, where it will be kept far away from the terminal buildings that generally process arriving passengers.
All those who come in contact with the passengers will be wearing protective equipment. Their luggage will be loaded onto a truck and removed from the airport and then also inspected, Channel 12 television reported.
The plane will return immediately to Asia and its crew will not be allowed to enter Israel while it is being prepared for the flight back.
On Thursday morning, families of passengers were permitted to drop off homemade food and personal items for the passengers in the quarantine area, Channel 13 television news reported.
One family left a bottle of Corona beer for its returning passenger, the station said.
After arriving in Israel, the 11 passengers will be taken directly to the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv for further health checkups and isolation for two weeks at a location off the main hospital campus, the hospital said in a statement.
The medical team will use sensors and robots and give handheld devices to the quarantined patients in order to minimize staff members’ exposure.
A spokesperson for the families of the passengers told media he spoke with the Israelis as they rode a bus to airport and they passed on a message that “they were leaving with mixed feelings,” knowing that there were others staying behind in Japan.
One Israeli passenger was forced to remain on the ship after earlier in the day he was found to have contracted the disease, officially known as COVID-19.
He was the fourth Israeli to test positive for the illness, out of at least 15 Israeli nationals aboard the Diamond Princess ship. Three, who were infected days ago, were already taken to Japanese medical centers where they are being treated and kept in quarantine.
The fourth passenger was also expected to be taken to a local medical center. Channel 12 reported that the man’s wife and brother-in-law, who were also on the ship, were allowed to return to Israel.
The man told the outlet: “I feel okay. No problems, no fever, but the results [of the test] weren’t good.”
He said he is in constant contact with the embassy and that he asked to be taken to a specific hospital where the treatment is good and where there is a nearby Chabad center that can provide kosher food.
The new virus began in China late last year and has sickened tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China’s Hubei province. The 621 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people on board are the most anywhere outside China.
Earlier Thursday Japanese health officials confirmed that two elderly passengers, both from Japan and with preexisting chronic health issues, had died from the virus.
The quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess, docked in Yokohama port near Tokyo, began February 4 and ended Wednesday for passengers who tested negative for the virus. Test results are still pending for some people on board.
About 500 passengers had left the ship by Wednesday evening, and Japanese officials were to spend the next three days disembarking about 2,000 others.
Before the quarantine on the ship had ended, the United States evacuated more than 300 Americans and put them in quarantine in the US for another 14 days. South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong also evacuated their residents for quarantines, and Canada and Italy sent flights for their citizens as well.
Japan’s government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato initially said those with negative virus tests had fulfilled the Japanese quarantine requirement and were free to walk out and go home on public transportation. Later Wednesday, he urged the former passengers to refrain from nonessential outings and try to stay home for about two weeks.
The Diamond Princess was initially quarantined after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.