The increase in the number of people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship diagnosed with COVID-19 continued Wednesday as the health ministry announced that 40 people — 29 passengers, 10 crew members and one quarantine officer — have tested positive.
It is the first time a person involved in the cruise ship case that is neither a passenger nor a crew member has been infected by the virus. Health minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters that the officer was involved in collecting health checkup forms from passengers.
The health ministry said this is also the first time a teenager on the ship has tested positive for the coronavirus and reported that four from the ship — three of them Japanese citizens — are in serious condition. Those four people have pre-existing conditions, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a daily briefing Wednesday afternoon.
The 39 passengers and crew members that tested positive Wednesday will be taken to hospitals across nine prefectures.
The newly reported cases bring the total from the ship to 174, excluding the quarantine officer, who is considered a domestic case. Aside from the Diamond Princess’s toll, the number of cases nationwide is 29.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday said that the government will bolster testing capabilities for those on the cruise ship to about 1,000 samples per day by Feb. 18 — the last day of the designated incubation period for people on the cruise ship — by allowing testing at private facilities. So far, only up to about 300 samples can be tested each day at public health centers nationwide.
Kato said the government is contemplating testing all passengers and crew members.
“We are going to continue to expand testing abilities while we pay the utmost consideration to the health of passengers and crew members by prioritizing testing for people who are newly showing symptoms such as fever and those over age 80 who aren’t feeling well,” Suga said.
The prime minister additionally expanded Japan’s entry ban beyond China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak. Starting Thursday, foreign nationals who have passports issued in Zhejiang province or have been to the area 14 days before arrival will be denied entry to the country, with an exception for extenuating circumstances.
“It is essential to adopt more comprehensible and flexible border controls to prevent the infectious disease from entering the country,” Abe said.
Suga explained that the government added the province to the entry ban after taking the area’s situation — the number of infected, medical infrastructure and movement restrictions within the province — into consideration.
The government doesn’t have an immediate plan to dispatch a charter flight there but has already issued a travel advisory, he said.
To deal with a scarcity of masks, Suga said the government has asked manufacturers to beef up their production and expects about 100 million masks to be supplied per week starting next week.
Wednesday is the last day for the 197 people who returned to Japan from Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, on the first charter flight to be voluntarily quarantined at temporary lodgings. All of them tested negative, the health ministry said, and they will be able to return home as early as Wednesday evening.
The World Health Organization named the virus attributed to the recent outbreak as COVID-19. The organization’s top director speculated it would take 18 months for the first vaccines to be available.
“The development of vaccines and therapeutics is one important part of the research agenda — but it is only one part,” Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said.
During Wednesday’s Lower House budget committee session, Abe said the government will release an emergency coronavirus package by tapping into a government reserve fund. The package will incorporate economic measures as well as plans for if COVID-19 becomes a national epidemic.
Citing the hit the hotel industry has taken due to declining Chinese tourists as an example, Abe said the economic plan will include supportive measures for small businesses.
Kato told lawmakers that the government is considering whether to mobilize ships equipped with medical functions and review additional hospitals that can accommodate patients should a national epidemic occur.
To prepare for such a situation, the government is currently creating a manual, he said.
“If the situation becomes more like a pandemic, patients with lighter symptoms would stay at home and those with serious symptoms would stay at hospitals — like when we deal with a new influenza virus,” he said. “We need to have measures to prevent a person’s condition from becoming even more grave.”
Information from Kyodo added.