• AFP-JIJI, Kyodo, Reuters, Staff Report

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The number of people infected with the deadly new coronavirus on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama rose by 70, to 355, the country’s health minister said Sunday, as the United States, Canada and Hong Kong prepared to repatriate their residents stranded on the vessel.

The spike comes as health minister Katsunobu Kato voiced worries that the rising infection count among the nation’s general population could mean the spread of the virus has entered a new phase.

Of the 70 new cases, 38 did not show symptoms of COVID-19 infection, such as fever and coughing, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said. The ministry has so far tested 1,219 people aboard the ship. The ship was carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew from more than 50 countries and territories when it docked and was placed in isolation.

“We must anticipate the spread of infections from now and must build up the medical system and so on to focus efforts on preventing people from becoming gravely ill or dying,” Kato said on NHK. “We will make the people feel at ease by providing information in a timely manner, and continue to reinforce measures.”

With global attention increasingly focused on the situation, the U.S. Embassy sent a letter Saturday to some 400 Americans aboard saying that chartered aircraft were set to arrive at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Sunday to repatriate those who wished to leave the ship.

According to media reports, the U.S. State Department chartered two airplanes for the evacuation.

Americans wishing to leave Japan will be screened before boarding to “prevent symptomatic travelers from departing Japan,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, suggesting that those showing symptoms will receive treatment in Japan.

Clyde Smith, 80, who was evacuated to a Tokyo hospital after testing positive for the virus, said Sunday that he had not been told whether he would be allowed to board one of the U.S. evacuation planes.

The U.S.-chartered aircraft will leave Haneda on Monday.

Upon their return to the United States, the passengers will enter another 14-day quarantine and be housed at two special federal sites in California and Texas, according to the CDC.

Canada and Hong Kong have followed suit in arranging flights for Princess Diamond passengers.

The Canadian government said in a statement late Saturday it has chartered a plane to evacuate its citizens from the cruise liner.

Canadian passengers who exhibit symptoms of the COVID-19 infection will not be permitted to board the flight and will instead be transferred to the Japanese health care system to receive appropriate care, the statement said.

After arriving in Canada, the passengers will undergo a 14-day period of quarantine, the statement added.

Hong Kong authorities said on Saturday that arrangements were being made to evacuate its citizens from the Diamond Princess, but that the timing depends on when the government will allow the passengers from Hong Kong to disembark.

Japanese officials have said Tokyo will cooperate with other countries that are making similar evacuation arrangements.

Meanwhile, Japan has seen 53 infections across the nation, including a dozen new cases reported on Saturday and 13 cases among more than 760 Japanese nationals and their relatives repatriated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Kato said Japan will boost efforts to encourage people with possible infections to quickly seek medical care.

“If you look at the figures, we are seeing changing situations compared with before,” Kato said on the NHK show.

“What we have to think about now is preventing cases from becoming severe and preventing deaths.”

More than a week has passed since the cruise ship was put under a two-week quarantine at Yokohama port after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong was found to be infected with COVID-19, the pneumonia-causing coronavirus.

The health ministry had initially planned to keep all of the passengers and crew confined on the vessel until Wednesday, when the quarantine is scheduled to end. Scores of passengers must still be tested and it is unclear if the quarantine will be extended.

But an onboard announcement citing the health ministry and posted to Twitter on Sunday by a passenger said that guests 70 years old and over who tested negative and show no symptoms by Wednesday will be allowed to disembark the vessel without any additional testing.

The ministry said last Thursday that passengers 80 and older, as well as their traveling companions, could leave before the end of the quarantine after they were screened for infection. Those with pre-existing conditions or who were staying in cabins without windows were prioritized for disembarkation.

In Beijing, authorities said Sunday the death toll in the COVID-19 outbreak, which originated in Wuhan, had risen by 142 to 1,665 on the mainland.

The Chinese government also said it had confirmed 2,009 new cases, bringing the total number of infected to 68,500.

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