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The evacuation began Wednesday of a cruise ship quarantined after an outbreak of new coronavirus COVID-19, with several hundred passengers who had tested negative being allowed to leave the ship.

About 500 individuals, most of them elderly, disembarked from the Diamond Princess on Wednesday. Many of them took chartered buses provided by the city to Yokohama Station, while others hailed taxis or were collected by family members. Those that chose to leave by foot were quickly surrounded by members of the press.

“I’m relieved to finally get off the ship,” an elderly man in his 70s told reporters. “I want to go home and rest.”

The Diamond Princess — which had departed from Yokohama for a 16-day trip with stops in Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan before its return — was carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew when it made port about two weeks ago.

The vessel was placed under a 14-day quarantine after reports that an 80-year-old man who disembarked in Hong Kong had tested positive for COVID-19. Passengers were asked to remain in their rooms, where crew brought them food and supplies.

All passengers who have tested negative for the virus are slated to leave the ship between Wednesday and Friday. But on Tuesday, a day before the quarantine was lifted, 88 additional passengers were reported to have tested positive, bringing the total number of infected passengers and crew to 542.

At the Diet, policymakers continued to debate whether the quarantine should have been lifted and if passengers should have been isolated after they disembarked.

A passenger leaves a port in Yokohama on Wednesday after disembarking the Diamond Princess cruise ship. | AFP-JIJI
A passenger leaves a port in Yokohama on Wednesday after disembarking the Diamond Princess cruise ship. | AFP-JIJI

During a Lower House Budget Committee meeting Wednesday, opposition party members criticized the health ministry for lifting the quarantine even as cases of infection continue to be reported aboard the ship almost every day.

Kazunori Yamanoi, an opposition party member, questioned whether passengers should be allowed to return home, go shopping and go about with their lives.

“If any of those 500 individuals are infected, we won’t be able to contain it,” he told health minister Katsunobu Kato during the meeting. “They should, at the very least, be isolated for two weeks just to be sure.”

But Kato insisted that isolating passengers after they left was not necessary, explaining that the cruise ship had been quarantined for 14 days according to a recommendation from the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

An man in his 70s speaks to the media outside Yokohama Station on Wednesday shortly after disembarking from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that had been quarantined in Yokohama for two weeks. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI.
An man in his 70s speaks to the media outside Yokohama Station on Wednesday shortly after disembarking from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that had been quarantined in Yokohama for two weeks. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI.

Kato asserted that if a passenger had tested negative for the novel coronavirus at any time during the 14-day quarantine aboard the ship, they should be allowed to disembark. But in response, Yamanoi pointed out that such a passenger could have become infected later in the quarantine period.

“It’s not impossible for a passenger to have been infected yesterday,” Yamanoi told the health minister. “It might be one or two people, but there is a chance.”

Several countries have sent chartered flights to evacuate their nationals from the Diamond Princess. U.S. citizens were evacuated Monday and South Koreans left Wednesday morning. Planes from Australia, Canada and Hong Kong were slated to land Wednesday, while a plane from Israel is expected to arrive on Thursday. Italy and the United Kingdom are reportedly looking to evacuate their nationals from the ship as well. Most evacuated foreign nationals will be isolated for another 14 days upon arrival in their country of origin.

Japanese passengers who disembark the Diamond Princess will not be isolated in any way. On Wednesday, several individuals said they had been encouraged by the health ministry to carry on with life as usual.

A passenger exercises using two water bottles on Wednesday aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama. | AP
A passenger exercises using two water bottles on Wednesday aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama. | AP

“In times like these, you can tell whether the (Japanese) government is thinking about its people,” another man in his 70s told reporters after getting off a chartered bus at Yokohama Station. “We may have been tested but the virus is still spreading on the boat,” he said. “It was all pointless.”

Meanwhile, day by day the domestic coronavirus outbreak in Japan continues to grow.

Nine more cases emerged Wednesday — a 40-year-old Sapporo man and another man in Hokkaido, a man in Okinawa, two elderly men sharing a hospital room in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, a woman in Nagoya and three in Tokyo — bringing the total number of domestic cases, excluding those aboard the Diamond Princess, to 82.

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