‘It was getting very difficult’: Cruise passengers in Japan start to disembark as quarantine ends

The latest:

  • Japan says at least 621 Diamond Princess passengers have tested positive for coronavirus.
  • Health officials allowing some passengers with negative COVID-19 tests to disembark.
  • Crew members who worked through quarantine expected to stay on ship.
  • Global Affairs says the number of Canadians who tested positive for virus has increased to 43. 

Hundreds of people began disembarking a cruise ship quarantined in Japan on Wednesday as criticism of the country’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak on board mounted.

Initial reports suggested about 500 people would be allowed off the Diamond Princess cruise liner, which is docked at Yokohama, south of Tokyo. The ordeal for passengers and staff began when the ship was quarantined on Feb. 3 after a former passenger was diagnosed with the virus in Hong Kong.

The Japanese government has been questioned over its decision to keep people aboard the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator. The Diamond Princess is the site of the most infections outside of China, where the illness named COVID-19 emerged late last year. As of Wednesday, 621 cases have been identified among the original 3,711 people on the ship, Japanese health officials said.

“I am very keen to get off this ship,” Australian passenger Vicki Presland told Reuters. Exactly who would be allowed off was not immediately clear, though reports indicated about 200 Australians would be among those leaving.

‘At least we’re together’

On Tuesday, Global Affairs Canada said 256 Canadians were on board the liner and 43 had been infected. The federal government has chartered a plane to airlift most of the Canadian passengers back to Canada. It’s expected to fly out of Japan on Friday.

Only Canadians and permanent residents from the ship who have not tested positive for the virus will be eligible to board the charter, Global Affairs Canada said.

It’s not clear whether any Canadians are among the hundreds who were set to leave the ship on Wednesday. Global Affairs has advised Canadians who are eligible to wait for the charter flight, which is expected later this week.

The Canadian flight will take returning cruise passengers to CFB Trenton in Ontario. From there, they will be transported to Cornwall for a 14-day quarantine at the NAV Canada Training Institute.

WATCH: Canadian couple staying in Japan after positive COVID-19 tests

CBC reporter Saša Petricic says Rose Yerex will join her husband, Greg, in a Japanese health centre after discovering they both have COVID-19. 3:54

CBC’s Saša Petricic, reporting from Japan, said Wednesday that one Canadian couple is trying to make the best of news that neither of them will be returning home this week. Greg and Rose Yerex from Port Dover, Ont., previously thought they would be separated after being told that Greg tested positive for COVID-19 and Rose tested negative.

But the pair have learned that despite not having symptoms, they both tested positive and will need to stay in a health centre in Japan.

“At least we’re together,” Rose said. “We’ll jump through the hoops together and keep each other strong.”

The cruise company previously said it was told the earliest arrival time for the Canadian flight was Friday. A government spokesperson said Wednesday that the date will be confirmed after arrangements with the Japanese government and cruise ship are finalized.

‘It was getting very difficult’

Those getting off the ship in Japan with negative virus tests have fulfilled the Japanese quarantine requirement and are free to walk out and go home on public transportation, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said Wednesday.

Japanese soldiers helped escort some passengers, including an elderly man in a wheelchair who wore a mask and held a cane. Some passengers got on buses to be transported to train stations. Some people still in their ship cabins waved farewell from their balconies to those who’d already departed.

“I’m a bit concerned if I’m OK to get off the ship, but it was getting very difficult physically,” a 77-year-old man from Saitama, near Tokyo, who got off with his wife, told Kyodo News. “For now, we just want to celebrate.”

A woman waves from a bus carrying passengers who disembarked the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship as she leaves the Daikoku Pier in Yokohama, Japan on Wednesday. About 500 passengers who have tested negative for COVID-19 were allowed to disembark the cruise ship. (Tomohiro Oshumi/Getty Images)

He said the plan was approved by experts at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Passengers are only asked to watch their health conditions carefully for a few days and notify local health authorities if they have any symptoms or worries, he said.

Some passengers said on Twitter they received health check forms asking if they had symptoms such as a headache, fever or coughing. Passengers who tested negative and had no symptoms still had to get their body temperature checked before leaving.

Crew members to stay on ship

Japanese officials will spend several days staging the high-stakes evacuation of about 2,000 others who were kept aboard the ship at Yokohama.

Even though Japanese officials insist the number of infected patients is levelling off, dozens of new cases on the ship continue to mount daily.

The quarantine was largely for passengers because crew members kept sharing double rooms and continued to serve guests by delivering food, letters, towels and amenities, and entering passenger cabins for cleaning. Crew members also ate in groups in a crew mess hall.

Crew members are expected to stay on the ship.

The ship’s operator, Princess Cruises, said in a statement Tuesday that 169 people who tested positive recently were still on the ship as they waited for transportation to hospitals. It was not clear if that figure had changed by Wednesday.

The safety and transport logistics for moving hundreds of people will test Japanese officials.

The United States evacuated more than 300 people over the weekend who are now in quarantine in the U.S. for another 14 days. South Korea earlier Wednesday returned seven people from the cruise ship, placing the six South Koreans and one Japanese family member into quarantine.

The U.S. government said Americans who chose to remain on board the ship in Japan instead of returning on a chartered flight cannot return home for at least two weeks after they come ashore. The governments picking up other passengers have similar policies.

U.S. officials cited the passengers’ possible exposure to the new virus while on board the Diamond Princess.

Japanese officials defend quarantine amid questions

Japan ranks second in the world after China in the number of confirmed virus cases due to the ship infections. The country has come under fire for its handling of the cruise ship quarantine, although top government officials have defended the quarantine and on-board testing operation.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Japan’s handling of the quarantine: “In the beginning, the United States expressed gratitude for the Japanese side. And there are many Americans who chose to stay on the ship.”

Japanese health officials say the 14-day quarantine on the ship was adequate, noting that all but one of more than 500 Japanese returnees from the epicentre of the virus in China who initially tested negative were found to be virus-free at the end of their 14-day quarantine.

Buses carrying the passengers from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship leave a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo on Wednesday. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Those officials also defended precautions taken on the ship. About 1,000 crew members were told to wear surgical masks, wash their hands, use disinfectant sprays and stop operations at restaurants, bars and other entertainment areas after Feb. 5, when the first group of 10 infections was reported and the start of the 14-day quarantine was announced.

Passengers were instructed to stay in their cabins and not walk around or contact other passengers. Those in windowless cabins could go out on the deck for about an hour each day.

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