(LONDON) — More than 300 Americans who were passengers aboard a cruise ship quarantined at sea in Japan over coronavirus infections have evacuated the country on two flights chartered by the U.S. government, officials said.
After disembarking from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, 14 of the passengers were found to be infected with the novel coronavirus, known officially as COVID-19, prior to boarding the charter planes at Tokyo International Airport on Monday. The passengers, who had been tested a couple days earlier, “were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols,” according to a joint statement from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“After consultation with HHS officials, including experts from the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the State Department made the decision to allow the 14 individuals, who were in isolation, separated from other passengers, and continued to be asymptomatic, to remain on the aircraft to complete the evacuation process,” the joint statement read, noting that the individuals would continue to be isolated from the other passengers during the flights. “All passengers are being closely monitored by medical professionals throughout the flight, and any who become symptomatic will be moved to the specialized containment area, where they will be treated.”
The first charter flight landed at Travis Air Force Base in California early Monday morning. The second landed later Monday morning at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
Upon arrival, all passengers will remain under quarantine for 14 days. Those who develop symptoms in flight and those with positive test results will remain isolated on board the aircraft until they are transported to “an appropriate location for continued isolation and care,” according to the joint statement from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Utah resident Mark Jorgensen was among the American passengers evacuated from the cruise ship on Monday. He confirmed to ABC News by telephone that he had arrived at Travis Air Force Base in California. His wife, Jerri, however, is still back in Japan. She remains isolated in a hospital there after being diagnosed with COVID-19, but is staying positive, Jorgensen told ABC News.
Jorgensen posted several photos and videos to his Facebook page on Monday, documenting the evacuation. He said it took a total of three hours for the hundreds of passengers to disembark the cruise ship and load into nine buses on the dock. On the charter flight, crew members were clad in full protective gear while passengers wore face masks.
“The logistics of putting this together have got to be enormous,” Jorgensen wrote in one of his Facebook posts.
The Diamond Princess docked at the Japanese port of Yokohama on Feb. 3 and was placed under quarantine two days later, as passengers and crew tested positive for COVID-19. Since then, at least 454 people on board the cruise ship have been infected with the newly discovered virus. At least one quarantine officer has also been infected, according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which is leading and coordinating the public health response on board.
All those infected with the disease on the Diamond Princess have been brought ashore for treatment, while thousands of other passengers have been confined to their rooms on board until the quarantine period ends. The United States is the first country to evacuate its citizens from the quarantined ship.
Princess Cruises, which operates the ship, announced in a statement Sunday that it will cancel all Diamond Princess voyages through April 20 due to the “prolonged quarantine period.” The cruise line is offering a full refund to all 2,666 guests who were on board the ship. More than 400 passengers were from the United States.
The ship is the largest center of infection of anywhere outside China, where the first cases of the new coronavirus were detected back in December. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global health emergency.
As of Monday, China’s National Health Commission said it had received 70,548 reports of confirmed cases and 1,770 deaths on the Chinese mainland. More than 82 percent of the confirmed infections were reported in Hubei province, which includes the city of Wuhan, the outbreak’s epicenter. An additional 87 confirmed infections had been reported in the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions as well as Taiwan province. One death was reported in Hong Kong and another in Taiwan, according to China’s National Health Commission.
The Health Commission of Hubei Province announced last Thursday a change in how cases are diagnosed and counted, with the total number of confirmed cases now including “clinically diagnosed cases,” or patients who showed symptoms of the disease and were diagnosed through CT scans of the lungs, for instance, but have not yet had laboratory testing. The expanded criteria is meant to ensure “that patients can receive standardized treatment according to confirmed cases as early as possible to further improve the success rate of treatment,” the commission said in a statement.
Outside of China, there were 683 laboratory-confirmed cases in 25 countries and three reported deaths as of Sunday, according to the WHO, which would bring the global death toll to 1,775.
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