YOKOHAMA – A group of 328 Americans previously aboard a cruise ship quarantined off Japan left for home early Monday morning on chartered flights, while 44 stayed in the nation for medical treatment.
Those that remained are among hundreds that have become infected with COVID-19 aboard the cruise ship, according to a U.S. official.
The evacuation coincided with heightened warnings from Japanese authorities over the deadly outbreak, urging citizens to avoid crowds and “non-essential gatherings.”
The Diamond Princess was placed in quarantine in early February, initially for 14 days, after a former passenger tested positive for the new coronavirus.
But U.S. authorities announced over the weekend that they would offer American passengers the option to leave the ship and fly home, where they will face another 14-day isolation period. Several other governments, including Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Italy, have also announced plans to remove their citizens from the ship.
More than three dozen Americans are not going home, however, said Anthony Fauci, a senior official at the National Institutes for Health, on CBS.
“Forty of them have gotten infected,” Fauci said. “They’re going to be in hospitals in Japan.”
It was not immediately clear whether those he referred to were among the figure of 355 people from the ship given earlier Sunday by Health Minister Katsunobu Kato as having had infections confirmed.
At that time Kato said that 1,219 people on the vessel had been tested.
Late Sunday and into the early hours of Monday, Americans who opted to leave were brought off the cruise ship in groups. They passed through a makeshift passport control but underwent no health checks, American passenger Sarah Arana told AFP.
They boarded buses driven by personnel in head-to-toe protective suits and were told that the more than a dozen vehicles would travel in a convoy.
“I am happy and ready to go,” Arana told AFP before leaving the ship. “We need a proper quarantine. This was not it.”
The U.S. government should have intervened “much sooner, at the beginning,” the 52-year-old medical social worker said.
“This was too much for Japan, and they shouldn’t have had to bear the burden,” she added. “The people of Japan did not deserve this. I am full of gratitude.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Saturday that 400 Americans would be flown home.
But some U.S. citizens on board declined the evacuation, despite being warned they would still have to wait two weeks and test negative for the virus before being allowed back to the United States.
Japan has not been able to test all those on board the ship due to limited supplies of testing kits, facilities and manpower, which are also needed by authorities tracking the spread of the virus on land.
Hong Kong has also said it plans to charter a flight for 330 city residents on the ship. Canada announced a similar decision, and on Sunday Italy said it wants to get its roughly 35 citizens off the ship quickly.
“We will be next,” Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said, adding that a meeting was to be held on Monday to decide how to bring them back.
The death toll in mainland China jumped to 1,665 after 142 more people died from the virus. More than 68,000 people have now been infected.