Tokyo’s mission to evacuate its nationals from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of a coronavirus outbreak, got underway Tuesday, as Japan reported its first case not linked to recent travel to China.
One of three new cases reported in Japan on Tuesday is a male bus driver in his 60s who lives in Nara Prefecture. The man did not travel to Wuhan but drove buses with tour groups from the city twice this month, officials said. The man is the first Japanese confirmed to be infected with the new coronavirus while this is also the first human-to-human transmission confirmed in Japan.
The other two patients, a man and woman in their 40s, are from Wuhan and their conditions are not serious, according to the health ministry. Japan has now reported a total of seven cases.
Meanwhile, a chartered flight departed Tokyo later Tuesday for Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the deadly outbreak.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Tuesday that the plane would deliver masks and protective suits to Wuhan before carrying back some 200 people to Tokyo on Wednesday morning. About 650 Japanese have expressed a desire to return to Japan, and the government is making arrangements to send additional chartered flights to Wuhan, Motegi said.
Once the Japanese nationals board one of the chartered planes, in-flight checks for symptoms such as fever and coughing will be conducted by a team including a doctor, two nurses and a quarantine officer.
The passengers will be asked to monitor their health for two weeks after their return to Japan and report to the nearest public health center if they develop coronavirus symptoms.
Ahead of Motegi’s announcement, the Cabinet on Tuesday approved the government’s plan to classify pneumonia caused by the virus as a “designated infectious disease,” a move that allows for compulsory hospitalization.
The number of cases caused by the coronavirus has shot up to over 4,500, with at least 106 dead, according to Chinese health authorities. Experts, meanwhile, are predicting the outbreak could last for months and afflict tens of thousands of people.
As of last week, about 710 Japanese were registered as staying in Hubei Province, whose capital is Wuhan.
The government had originally planned to start sending the chartered planes as early as Tuesday morning but could not secure agreement from Chinese representatives over the use of a local airport, government sources said. Japan may have faced scheduling difficulties because the United States also plans to evacuate U.S. nationals from the Chinese city aboard a chartered flight Tuesday, the sources said.
Past cases in which Japan has used government and commercial planes to bring Japanese nationals home have been when local security situations have deteriorated.
The currently planned flights are believed to mark the first case in which Japan will evacuate its nationals from a foreign country because of the outbreak of an infectious disease.
The government currently anticipates sending two or three flights to Wuhan once arrangements are in place with the Chinese authorities.
Tuesday’s designation of pneumonia caused by the coronavirus as a specified infectious disease will also restrict infected patients from going to work and require disinfection of sites where the virus has been detected.
The government will use public funds to pay for the medical treatment of those subject to forced hospitalization. About 400 specified medical institutions across Japan will be able to provide treatment.
The government also said anyone travelling who is suspected of having the virus must, under the quarantine law, have a medical checkup at their point of arrival in Japan.
Japan is stepping up quarantine and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the country, one of the major destinations for Chinese travelers during the Lunar New Year holiday.
The designation, the fifth of its kind and the first since the 2014 spread of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), also requires doctors to report any patients who test positive for the coronavirus.
“We will take all possible measures to prevent the spread of infections,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference.
The same emergency steps were taken in the past for other infectious diseases designated by the government as Class II, such as MERS and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). Under the law, infectious diseases are divided into five classes depending on their severity.