National / Science & Health

Naha goes on high alert, days after visit by virus-hit cruise ship

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Wednesday’s confirmation of further coronavirus infections aboard a quarantined cruise ship docked near Yokohama has put the city of Naha in Okinawa Prefecture, where the ship made a stop last Saturday, on high alert.

Tadashi Nakasone, an official from the Naha Municipal Government, said that staff members were verifying whether any passengers who left the Diamond Princess had spread the virus while it was docked in the city.

“We’ve received information that on Feb. 1, 13 passengers left the ship without returning after it docked in Naha and that those individuals have already left Okinawa Prefecture,” Nakasone said Wednesday by telephone. He added that nearly all of the other passengers, numbering over 2,600, also came ashore temporarily to go sightseeing.

Nakasone said no health issues had been detected or reported when the cruise ship left Naha.

He explained that all passengers were screened for the coronavirus, and that none of those who disembarked the ship or left it temporarily had a fever or other suspicious symptoms before its departure Saturday. The ship arrived in Naha at 1:30 p.m. and left for Yokohama at around 11 p.m. that day.

“But it’s possible that some of those passengers were carrying the virus even though there were no signs of it on Saturday,” Nakasone added. “We are gathering information on what the 10 passengers since found to be infected were doing while in Naha, and will warn operators (of facilities and establishments those people had visited) of possible risks.”

Nakasone warned that many cruise ship passengers had used taxis and buses during their stay in Naha, and said that “taxi and bus drivers (who may have had contact with the infected travelers) may be at high risk.”

He added that in the wake of the virus outbreak, since late January, about 100 staff workers from a health care center in the city have been mobilized to respond to the crisis, which has impacted the center’s day-to-day operations. He said the center had been forced to temporarily suspend tests for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, which it offers free of charge, to enable its workers to focus on its response to the new coronavirus.

“I believe all public health care centers nationwide are now on the ropes as they work to assist those seeking consultations” and health checks, Nakasone said. “If 10 or more people with suspicious symptoms were to arrive seeking help, we wouldn’t be able to respond.”

Reports of infection aboard the Diamond Princess came amid government efforts to attract more cruise ships from abroad to bolster tourism. Naha is one of Japan’s most popular cruise ports.

The virus outbreak is likely to further affect cruise ship schedules.

But Nakasone said that at present there are no regulations that would allow municipal governments or port authorities to decide whether to deny entry to cruise ships, or to prohibit them from leaving the port.

“Such decisions could result in a financial hit,” he said.

According to the tourism ministry, more than 2.1 million people visited Japan by cruise ship in 2019, and 129 cruise ships made port calls in Japan in December.

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