2 elderly cruise ship passengers die of virus as 4th Israeli confirmed infected
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2 elderly cruise ship passengers die of virus as 4th Israeli confirmed infected

Japan health ministry officials says the deceased had existing chronic diseases before they caught coronavirus; Israeli to be taken to Japanese hospital for isolation and treatment

Passengers speak on balconies of the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, February 20, 2020. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
Passengers speak on balconies of the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, February 20, 2020. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Two elderly passengers taken off the Diamond Princess cruise ship because they were infected with coronavirus have died, Japan’s health ministry said Thursday, becoming the first fatalities from the virus-stricken vessel.

The development came as Israel’s foreign and health ministries confirmed that a fourth Israeli passenger on the vessel has been diagnosed with the disease.

The passenger is expected to be taken from the boat for isolation and treatment at a Japanese military hospital, the Foreign Ministry said.

Japan’s NHK public television said the two fatalities were Japanese in their 80s. A health ministry official only confirmed that they had been previously been hospitalized in serious condition and had existing chronic diseases. The official spoke anonymously, citing office protocol.

Japan now has three deaths linked to the COVID-19 illness.

A bus carrying passengers from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship leaves a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Feb. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

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.

The Diamond Princess, docked in Yokohama port, near Tokyo, started letting passengers who tested negative for the virus leave the ship Wednesday. Test results are still pending for some people on board.

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 non-essential outings and try to stay home for about two weeks.

“COVID-19 is not 100% known, and a lot of people got infected on the Diamond Princess. Taking those factors into consideration, we believe taking extra caution will contribute to preventing the risk of future infections,” he said.

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. The Diamond Princess was quarantined after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.

At least four Israelis were among those on board who were infected. There were another 11 Israelis on the ship who so far are not known to have contracted the disease.

An Israeli flag can be seen in one of the portholes (left) of Diamond Princess cruise ship, where three Israelis have been diagnosed with coronavirus, at the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port on February 16, 2020 (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)

Hebrew media said Wednesday that all uninfected Israeli passengers would disembark by Thursday and will depart for Israel three hours later 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.

Three Israelis who were confirmed to have the disease were already taken off the ship and are being treated in isolation at Japanese medical centers. They are reportedly in a mild condition. The fourth confirmed infected Israeli is likewise expected to be taken to a local medical center.

Crew members, who couldn’t be confined to their rooms because they were working, are expected to stay on the ship.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said a more controlled health watch for the crew would start immediately because they can isolate themselves by spreading out and using vacated passenger rooms.

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 evacuated their residents for quarantines as well, and Canada and Italy sent flights for their citizens as well.

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