TOKYO/WUHAN, CHINA – A charter jet evacuating the first group of Japanese nationals from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of a deadly virus outbreak, arrived in Tokyo on Wednesday morning.
Among the 206 Japanese nationals who were repatriated from Wuhan, 12 have been hospitalized with symptoms such as a fever or cough, according to the health ministry and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Two of those people were diagnosed with pneumonia.
Another 440 people have asked for help to leave Wuhan, though a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that number was expected to grow significantly. More flights are being arranged to evacuate them.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government’s “greatest responsibility” is the protection of its citizens. “We will do our utmost to prevent the outbreak from spreading,” he said.
“We are very relieved,” Takayuki Kato, one of the passengers who arrived at Haneda Airport around 8:40 a.m., told reporters.
Medical personnel on board checked the evacuees’ health and found five — three men and two women in their 30s to 50s — had symptoms including a fever or cough and were rushed to medical facilities in Tokyo. The two diagnosed with pneumonia are men in their 40s and 50s.
A further eight were later found to have similar symptoms after being taken to the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo, seven of whom were also hospitalized.
Although showing no symptoms, the remaining passengers on the charter flight that arrived Wednesday are being asked to stay indoors for two weeks and be vigilant for any sign of symptoms, according to government officials. The aircraft carrying the evacuees was disinfected, All Nippon Airways said.
Those with somewhere to stay in or near Tokyo would be allowed to head there, while the plan was for those intending to travel further from the capital to be offered accommodation, initially, at local hotels.
The new pneumonia-causing coronavirus has already claimed at least 132 lives and infected about 6,000 people in China — more cases than the country saw in the SARS coronavirus in 2002 and 2003, while also spreading globally, with cases confirmed in the United States, Europe and elsewhere as well as in Japan.
A second charter flight for Japanese nationals was slated to leave Haneda at 8 p.m. Wednesday and return at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, the government said. There has been talk of using a bigger plane to complete the evacuation in three trips.
Additionally, a Japanese man in his 60s still in Wuhan is suffering from a serious pneumonia infection, a Foreign Ministry official said later Wednesday, and had tested positive for the coronavirus in a preliminary screening.
Takeo Aoyama, a Nippon Steel employee who arrived on Japan’s evacuation flight, described confusion in Wuhan, with travel restrictions intended to contain the virus making it harder for those in the epicenter to know what was happening.
“The number of patients began increasing rapidly at a certain point. That was very worrying,” he told reporters at the airport.
“We were not able to move freely, so we only had partial information. The restrictions on the flow of goods and transport were extremely strict,” he said.
He said food was available, but supplies were uncertain, with shops selling out on some days.
“It wasn’t a situation where we couldn’t get anything at all. But it wasn’t a situation where you could get anything freely, either,” Aoyama said.
Takayuki Kato, who was working in Wuhan for the firm Intec, said the atmosphere inside the city changed as the scale of the crisis became clear.
“Everyone in the city began wearing masks. On the 23rd, when transport was shut down, I became very alarmed,” he said.
He said he was careful to wash his hands and rinse out his mouth, and hoped that would be sufficient to keep him healthy.
The evacuation had gone smoothly, he said. The flight “was quiet. People were cool-headed.”
As of Tuesday morning, about 650 Japanese nationals in total had requested evacuation from Wuhan, where the virus was first identified.
In Tokyo, as of Tuesday, a total of 50 beds had been made available in four public hospitals in Tokyo to accept those with symptoms.
“Be it doctors or hospital rooms, we are prepared to allocate more resources to take in more patients showing symptoms of the coronavirus,” said Fukumi Nakamura, chief physician of the infectious disease ward at Ebara Hospital in Ota Ward. The hospital is located near Haneda Airport and often provides treatment for travelers returning from abroad.
At Ebara Hospital, the returnees interned there were expected to be taken to examination rooms using a separate route than usual, in order to avoid contact with other patients or nonmedical personnel.
“We have made all the necessary preparations to provide treatment for those returning from Wuhan and anybody concerned they may have contracted the virus,” said Nakamura. “The number of people infected is growing at an explosive rate, so I insist that anyone showing even mild symptoms seek medical help.”
The facility has 11 rooms with pressurized ventilation systems designed to keep air from flowing out and prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Nakamura said one of the rooms was used during the 2012 outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which claimed more than four hundred lives worldwide.
“I urge people not to panic or act irrationally out of blind fear,” Nakamura said. “What’s best is for you to inform yourselves of the risks and respond with the appropriate amount of concern.
“All pathogens are the same when it comes to preventing transmission. Wear a mask, cough or sneeze into a napkin or your sleeve and wash your hands often,” she added.
China has imposed a virtual lockdown on Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province in an effort to contain the outbreak during the Lunar New Year holiday.
Prior to the arrival of the latest evacuees, Japan’s health ministry had confirmed seven cases of the virus in the country, including what is believed to be the first domestic case of human-to-human transmission of the virus.
Meanwhile, Nara Gov. Shogo Arai said Wednesday that tourists from Wuhan who took part in one of the bus tours, which began on Jan. 12, traveled via Narita Airport and Kansai International Airport and stopped in Nara Park for about an hour on Jan. 16.
Nara Prefectural Government officials said they believed the driver from the Osaka-based tour bus company was infected inside the bus. No other drivers with the company are said to be showing similar symptoms.
Thousands of foreigners are among those effectively trapped in the Wuhan area, and numerous countries are devising plans to get their nationals out.
The United States sent a plane to the Chinese city Tuesday to evacuate diplomats and citizens, with South Korea saying it will do the same Thursday and Friday.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called the virus a “demon” and pledged a “timely” release of updates about the crisis during talks Tuesday in Beijing with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, head of the World Health Organization.
Following the talks, the WHO said the two sides had agreed to send international experts to China “as soon as possible … to guide global response efforts.”
“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is the WHO’s highest priority,” Tedros said.