The Japanese government said Thursday that two hundreds of older passengers were the first to board a cruise ship that had moored near Tokyo and died of the coronavirus when hundreds of other passengers disembarked after two weeks of quarantine.
The 621 coronavirus cases on board the Diamond Princess Cruise Liner are by far the largest infection group outside of China. The ship has been held on board with 3,700 people since February 3.
The two deceased patients, an 87-year-old man and an 84-year-old woman, had both tested positive for the virus, although the woman's cause of death was listed as pneumonia, the health ministry said.
Two government officials who worked on the ship were infected, increasing the number of officers infected to five.
The public broadcaster NHK reported that 27 people on the ship were in serious condition.
The quarantine operation triggered criticism of the Japanese authorities just a few months before the Tokyo Summer Olympics were held.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Japan's efforts. He told a press conference that the number of new infections had dropped after measures to isolate passengers were taken on February 5.
The Japanese National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) said in a report released on Wednesday that there were no new cases of COVID-19 disease on the cruise ship on February 16 and 17 and only one case of crew members on February 15 were reported.
To reassure the public, the Ministry of Health also made a statement in English and Japanese that all passengers had to stay in their cabins since February 5. Critics have noted that the day before this order was made for passengers. The events on board continued, including dances and quizzes.
SURE TO GO HOME?
About 1,000 Japanese released from the ship after a negative test for the virus were allowed to go home this week. Other countries fly their citizens home, but quarantine them for another two weeks upon arrival.
"We believe the isolation has been effective," said Suga, chief cabinet minister.
Those who have shared a room with infected people will be kept on board under further quarantine.
According to the Ministry of Health, around 600 people are expected to disembark on Thursday, 500 of which will return to their homes in Japan. On Wednesday, 800 people left the ship, including foreigners who had left on evacuation flights.
"We ask people to keep an eye on their temperature at home," a health official told Reuters. The government distributed brochures with advice on the disease, which killed more than 2,100 people, mainly in China.
However, some experts fear that returnees may infect others. Results published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine suggest that the virus may spread more easily than previously thought, even from carriers who have no symptoms.
Department of Health officials said the United States had made the decision to take the risk of taking infected passengers home, and it was up to each country to quarantine people entering their ports.
"Our position is that Japan, as the local authority, has been quarantining these people for two weeks," said the official, adding that people who were later sent home by the Diamond Princess had intercepted the virus positively from the ship.
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