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New COVID-19 cases reported across Japan as 88 more aboard Diamond Princess test positive

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

Near the end of its two-week quarantine, 88 more people aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama tested positive for COVID-19, the health ministry said Tuesday, with 65 of them experiencing no symptoms such as fever or coughs.

The newly infected passengers range in age from their teens to their 70s and include 35 Japanese nationals, according to the ministry. All passengers aboard the cruise ship who have tested negative for the virus will be allowed to start disembarking Wednesday, health minister Katsunobu Kato said Tuesday, with the ministry having finished taking test samples from all passengers.

Those who test negative will be allowed to leave between Wednesday and Friday, while those who test positive will be hospitalized. The same measures will apply to crew members. Most of the passengers to be released on Wednesday will be Japanese, with priority being given to the elderly.

So far, at least 616 people have tested positive for the virus in Japan, including 542 from the ship and eight other cases across the nation on Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government reported three new infections in central Tokyo, including two men in serious condition — one in his 50s and the other in his 80s — and a man in his 20s.

Also on Tuesday evening, new cases were reported in Aichi and Kanagawa prefectures. The Aichi case is an acquaintance of two others who have tested positive and the Kanagawa case is a taxi driver. Both men are in their 60s.

Earlier Tuesday, Wakayama Prefecture reported three new infections, including an inpatient in his 60s at Saiseikai Arida Hospital in Yuasa, a teenage son of an infected doctor at the hospital, and a man in his 30s who worked as a member of a medical team sent to the Diamond Princess for quarantine efforts.

Authorities have said the virus is now being transmitted locally and have asked citizens to avoid crowds and nonessential gatherings.

“We are seeing an increase of cases in which the route of transmission is not immediately known,” Kato said. “We must take measures by considering the possibility of it spreading to a certain degree.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a separate news conference Tuesday that it has been “appropriate” to keep the passengers and crew aboard the cruise liner until the two-week quarantine period ends Wednesday.

Suga said Japan is preparing to start a clinical trial on applying an HIV drug as a coronavirus treatment. The top government spokesman said the trial will be mainly conducted at the Center Hospital of the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, but he declined to say how long it could take for the medicine to be approved.

His comments came amid doubts raised by some U.S. media outlets about Japan’s response to the infections on the cruise ship. A group of 328 American passengers from the vessel left for home early Monday on planes chartered by the U.S. government. Over a dozen had tested positive for the virus.

The Americans, like citizens from other countries being evacuated from the ship, will have to undergo another 14-day quarantine.

On Tuesday, Canada and South Korea were preparing to send chartered flights to Japan to evacuate their nationals.

South Korea was set to send a presidential aircraft on Tuesday to fly back four nationals and one Japanese spouse, an official told reporters. There are 14 South Koreans on board in total, but the other 10 have declined to be evacuated from the ship because they live in Japan, the Yonhap news agency reported.

Canada said Tuesday it had “secured a chartered flight to repatriate Canadians on board the Diamond Princess” but gave no details on when the process would take place. There were 256 Canadians on board the ship, with 32 so far testing positive for the virus.

While foreign governments have couched their decision to remove citizens as an attempt to reduce the burden on Japanese authorities, many have interpreted the evacuations as criticism of Tokyo’s handling of the situation.

The U.S. and Australia have told citizens that if they decline repatriation and an additional 14-day quarantine, they will not be allowed home for at least two weeks, suggesting they do not believe the ship-based quarantine has worked.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed his ruling Liberal Democratic Party Tuesday to consider postponing or reducing the size of its annual general meeting scheduled for March 8 as infections spread.

On Monday, organizers announced that the amateur portion of the Tokyo Marathon, which had been expected to attract some 38,000 runners, had been canceled. Only elite athletes will now be able to take part.

The public celebration for Emperor Naruhito’s birthday has also been scrapped. over virus fears.

Meanwhile, four Japanese nationals who were aboard the Westerdam, a cruise ship that was earlier refused entry to Japan due to suspected cases of infection, arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport early Tuesday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said.

They cleared an initial screening in Cambodia, where they disembarked, and are undergoing another test following their arrival in Japan, he said.

Another Japanese national who works as a crew member on the Westerdam wishes to remain with the vessel, Motegi said, adding that the ministry will stay in touch and provide necessary help.

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