• Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

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Two elderly passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship infected with COVID-19 have died, the health ministry said Thursday, marking the first deaths from the vessel docked at Yokohama port.

The man and woman, both Japanese and in their 80s, were taken off the cruise ship last week and died while hospitalized Thursday, officials said.

The man had a pre-existing condition of bronchial asthma and a history of angina treatment, but the woman had no known pre-existing conditions, they said, adding that the direct cause of her death was pneumonia likely caused by the new coronavirus.

“I pray for their souls and offer condolences to their bereaved families,” health minister Katsunobu Kato said in the Diet. “The two were sent to medical facilities when they showed symptoms. I believe that they received the best possible treatment,” he said.

Japan has now seen three deaths from the virus.

Health ministry officials said they suspect the two passengers were infected before the ship was placed under a two-week quarantine on Feb. 5, considering the incubation period.

The two were administered with HIV drugs, and the man also received flu medicine, the officials said.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed domestic cases of COVID-19 continued to rise Thursday, with eight more cases newly reported by the evening, bringing Japan’s tally to 92.

The city of Fukuoka announced it had confirmed that a man in his 60s living in the city tested positive, marking the first confirmed case in Kyushu.

Separately, the central government said two officials — one from the health ministry and another from the Cabinet Secretariat who had both worked on the Diamond Princess during its quarantine — tested positive for the virus.

A man in his 40s in Sapporo has newly tested positive, the fifth case in the prefecture, while a man in his 80s was also found to be infected in Okinawa Prefecture. A man in his 80s who was hospitalized at the same facility as previously infected people in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, also tested positive. Later in the evening it was reported that a man in his 80s in Nagoya and a woman in her 70s in Chiba Prefecture also were infected.

The Diamond Princess is easily the biggest coronavirus cluster outside the Chinese epicenter, with 634 positive cases confirmed among the passengers and crew as of Thursday.

On Wednesday, 443 passengers disembarked from the ship after testing negative for COVID-19 and not showing symptoms during a 14-day quarantine period. The complete removal of the passengers was expected to take at least three days. Another 274 more passengers left the ship Thursday, packing into yellow buses and leaving for stations and airports for home.

A third group from among the remaining 2,000 or so passengers still on board is expected to disembark Friday, while those who have had close contact with confirmed cases are being required to stay aboard longer until they are found not to be infected with the virus.

The cruise ship was initially carrying around 3,700 passengers and crew members from more than 50 countries and regions.

Questions are increasingly being asked as to the wisdom of allowing former Diamond Princess passengers to roam freely around Japan’s crowded cities, even if they have tested negative.

The health ministry has defended the quarantine measures, saying it had conducted “consultations on appropriate infection control in the ship” with experts and taken a range of measures.

It also released a video showing passengers how to wash and disinfect their hands properly, and had “proper hygiene management” for medical workers entering and coming off the ship.

“We’ve been doing our best in the circumstances,” Kato told the Diet on Thursday morning.

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