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Countries to evacuate citizens on Diamond Princess ship while COVID-19 cases keep rising

14:20 | 16/02/2020

The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 on a quarantined ship off Japan's coast has risen to 355, the country's health minister said Sunday (Feb 16). Coutries were preparing to evacuate some of its citizens from the ship.

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Passengers on the Diamond Princess are confined to their cabins except for brief outings on open decks wearing facemasks. (Photo: AFP/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)

"So far, we have conducted tests for 1,219 individuals. Of those, 355 people tested positive. Of those, 73 individuals are not showing symptoms," Katsunobu Kato told a roundtable discussion on public broadcaster NHK - a rise of 70 from the last government toll.

The new figures came as the United States was preparing to evacuate some of its citizens from the Diamond Princess, which has been in quarantine since Feb 5 in the port of Yokohama, near Tokyo.

Hong Kong (China) also said it would offer its 330 citizens on board the chance to take a charter flight back. Canada, too, announced a similar decision to repatriate its nationals on the ship.

The cruise ship arrived off the Japanese coast in early February with more than 3,700 passengers and crew members from more than 50 countries and regions.

It was placed under quarantine after authorities found that a passenger who got off the boat in Hong Kong during its voyage tested positive for the virus.

Officials kept finding new infections among the passengers and crew members and transporting them to Japanese hospitals, while others have been told to stay inside their individual cabins during the 14-day quarantine period, which should end on Wednesday.

Japan has not been able to test all those on board due to limited supplies of testing kits, facilities and manpower that are also needed by authorities tracking the spread of the virus among the general population.

"Based on the high number of COVID-19 cases identified onboard the Diamond Princess, the Department of Health and Human Services made an assessment that passengers and crew members onboard are at high risk of exposure," the US embassy said in a letter to its passengers.

The embassy warned that those who come back will have to undergo another 14 days of quarantine when they arrive in the United States.

NHK said 400 Americans were on board the cruise ship and the plane would leave Tokyo's Haneda airport as soon as early Monday.

The Canada and Hong Kong said those repatriated will go through another two-week quarantine period at home.

The captain of the Diamond Princess has told passengers that the Japanese government might start testing them for the virus from Tuesday, and those with negative results would be allowed to get off the ship from Friday.

QUARANTINE TIMELINE IN DOUBT

There were more than 3,700 people on the ship when it arrived off the Japanese coast in early February. It was placed in quarantine after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive for the newly named COVID-19.

Those diagnosed on board have been removed to local hospital, with people remaining on the ship told that their quarantine would be over on Feb 19, two weeks from when it officially began.

But a message broadcast on the ship by the captain on Saturday night cast doubt on that timeline.

"The Japanese government has informed us that they may start a new testing process for guests beginning Feb 18," the message said, warning that it would take several days to complete and results would not be available for around three days.

"So guests who are tested on Feb 18 and have negative test results may be able to disembark beginning Feb 21," the message said.

Those who had close contact with anyone who tested positive would have to restart their quarantine from the date of their last close contact, he added.

And crew on board will go into a new quarantine period once the passengers have left the ship, though details of how long that would last were not immediately clear, the broadcast said.

Japan's government has begun allowing elderly passengers on the ship in poor health to leave and finish their quarantine on land.

Those on board have been mostly confined to their cabins and required to wear masks and keep their distance from others during brief outings on deck.

countries to evacuate citizens on diamond princess ship while covid 19 cases keep rising
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomes a passenger of MS Westerdam as it docks in Sihanoukville, Cambodia on Feb 14, 2020. Photo: Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation

There are widespread fears that cruise ships around Asia may be spreading the virus. An American passenger from a cruise ship docked in Cambodia has the new coronavirus after she tested positive in Malaysia.

The 83-year-old woman was the first passenger from the MS Westerdam, operated by Carnival Corp unit Holland America Inc, to test positive for the virus.

Holland America said 236 passengers and 747 crew remained aboard the vessel, which is docked in the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville.

It arrived on Thursday carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew. It had spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by Japan, Taiwan (China), Guam, the Philippines and Thailand.

The passengers were tested regularly on board and Cambodia also tested 20 once it docked. None was found to have the new coronavirus.

The American woman flew to Malaysia on Friday from Cambodia along with 144 others from the ship, the Malaysian health ministry said in a statement, adding that she was in stable condition.

The woman's husband had shown symptoms but tested negative, it said. The couple were the only ones among the 145 to show symptoms, the ministry said.

The American woman's case brings the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Malaysia to 22./.

VNF/AFP/Reuters