Hundreds of passengers began leaving the Diamond Princess cruise ship Wednesday after the end of a much-criticized, two-week quarantine that failed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus among passengers and crew.
Officials still were continuing tests on the ship for the virus that has infected over 75,000 people globally, killing over 2,000, with the vast majority of cases in mainland China. Over 540 of the ship’s passengers have been infected.
Japanese officials will spend several days staging the high-stakes evacuation of about 2,500 people who’ve been kept aboard the ship at the Yokohama port near Tokyo after one passenger who departed the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
The ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator, has since become the site of the most infections outside of China, where the virus was first identified. As of Tuesday, 542 cases have been identified among the original 3,711 people on the ship.
At least three Israelis were among those on board who were infected. There were another 12 Israelis on the ship who so far are not known to have contracted the disease. It wasn’t immediately clear if they were able to immediately disembark from the ship.
The non-infected Israelis from the ship are set to depart for Israel on Thursday after Japanese authorities agreed for them to be taken straight to a plane that will fly them home. They will first be tested to make sure they are not infected with the deadly virus, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
The passengers will receive a special permit enabling them to travel directly to the jet, which was chartered by several private insurance companies to bring the Israelis back to the country.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service said in a statement Wednesday that it was prepared to receive the patients, with teams of paramedics wearing protective gear set to transport them in ambulances that will then be disinfected.
The three Israelis who caught the virus were hospitalized in Japan and are said to be suffering from mild symptoms of the disease. They will return home separately.
On Tuesday Israel’s consul to Japan Revital Ben Naim and Israeli infectious disease expert Ran Nir-Paz visited the two military hospitals where the infected Israelis are being treated as they are kept in isolation — a couple at one location and a man at another — and spoke with them by phone, the ministry said in a statement.
Nir-Paz reported that the Israelis are “evidently in mild condition” and are receiving good treatment by Japanese medical teams.
The Health Ministry sent Nir-Paz, of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, to Japan to check up on the infected Israelis.
Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto and Israel’s Ambassador to Japan Yaffa Ben-Ari met in Tokyo on Monday with Japanese health officials in order to discuss the evacuation of Israeli nationals from the ship, the ministry said at the time.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman instructed the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer to prepare to take the Israelis into quarantine upon their arrival in the country. They will be kept in a separate unit and monitored by medical staff assigned solely for that purpose, the ministry added.
Some of the non-Israeli passengers said on Twitter after the evacuation started that they received health check forms asking if they had symptoms such as a headache, fever or coughing. Passengers who tested negative and had no symptoms of the COVID-19 disease still had to get their body temperature checked before leaving.
About 500 are expected to return home Wednesday. Crew members, who couldn’t be confined to their rooms over the last two weeks because they were working, are expected to stay on the ship.
The ship’s operator, Princess Cruises, said in a statement Tuesday that 169 people who tested positive recently were still on the ship as they waited for transportation to hospitals.
The safety and transport logistics for moving hundreds of people will test Japanese officials. The United States evacuated more than 300 people over the weekend who are now in quarantine in the US for another 14 days. South Korea earlier Wednesday returned seven people from the cruise ship, placing the six South Koreans and one Japanese family member into quarantine.
Other foreign passengers were to be picked up by chartered flights sent from Canada, Australia, Italy and Hong Kong.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended his country’s handling of the quarantine: “In the beginning, the United States expressed gratitude for the Japanese side. And there are many Americans who chose to stay on the ship,” Suga said.
The US government said Americans who chose to remain on board the ship in Japan instead of returning on a chartered flight cannot return home for at least two weeks after they come ashore. The governments picking up passengers have similar policies.
US officials cited the passengers’ possible exposure to the new virus while on board the Diamond Princess.
Japanese health officials say the 14-day quarantine on the ship was adequate, noting that all but one of more than 500 Japanese returnees from the epicenter of the virus in China who initially tested negative were found to be virus-free at the end of their 14-day quarantine.
Those officials also defended precautions taken on the ship. About 1,000 crew members were told to wear surgical masks, wash their hands, use disinfectant sprays and stop operations at restaurants, bars and other entertainment areas after February 5, when the first group of 10 infections was reported and the start of the 14-day quarantine was announced.
Passengers were instructed to stay in their cabins and not walk around or contact other passengers. Those in windowless cabins could go out on the deck for about an hour each day.
The quarantine was largely for passengers because crew members kept sharing double rooms and continued to serve guests by delivering food, letters, towels and amenities, and entering passenger cabins for cleaning. Crew members also ate in groups in a crew mess hall.