Japan yesterday said it would allow some elderly passengers off a quarantined cruise ship and into government-designated lodging, as the number of COVID-19 cases on the vessel jumped by 44 to 218.
Thousands of passengers and crew on the Diamond Princess face several days more of quarantine, with many taking to social media to voice their concerns.
Those working on the ship have been reluctant to speak to reporters for fear of losing their jobs, but two crew members broke their silence in a video broadcast by Indian media yesterday.
“The situation on board is getting worse day by day,” 24-year-old ship security officer Sonali Thakkar said.
“This morning they told us that 44 people have been infected and everyone is really scared and wanting to get off as soon as possible,” she added. “All we want is tests to be done and to be separated from those who are positive. We don’t want to stay on board.”
With passengers mostly confined to their cabins, crew members have to go door-to-door to deliver food and other supplies, and some fear this has reduced the effectiveness of the quarantine.
Japanese Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Katsunobu Kato said there were 44 new cases — including one crew member — from an additional 221 tests.
He said also that elderly passengers who have pre-existing conditions or are in windowless rooms would be allowed off the ship if they test negative for COVID-19.
Those who opt to leave will be moved to government facilities to wait out a quarantine that is set to last until Wednesday next week.
“If they test negative, those who wish to disembark can go and live in a lodging facility that the government will prepare,” Kato said.
Those who had been in close contact with persons who tested positive would not be allowed to leave the ship, he said.
“The Ministry of Health has already tested guests 80 years or older who are staying in a cabin without a balcony, and those 80 years or older with chronic medical conditions,” Kato said.
About 80 percent of the passengers are aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s, Japanese media have said.
Five people from the ship were in serious condition in hospital — four who have tested positive for the virus, while test results for the fifth were still being processed, Kato said.
With dozens of new cases diagnosed almost daily, questions have been raised about the pace of testing and whether the quarantine is working.
Thakkar said that while passengers were confined to quarters, the crew were eating together, working together and sleeping two to a cabin with shared washing facilities.
“I haven’t got the virus yet, but I don’t want it to be so late that I catch the virus. I don’t want to wait to find out that I’m the one that has it,” she said.
Japanese officials have said they can only process 300 people a day, but hope eventually to expand this to 1,000.
In a second news conference last night, Kato reported Japan’s first death of a person infected with COVID-19, but said it was not clear if the virus or other complications had caused her death.
The woman in her 80s was tested for the virus after being hospitalized, and was confirmed positive after her death, Kato said.
The death came as three additional new infections were confirmed in Japan, including a taxi driver in Tokyo.
They bring the number of cases in Japan to 32, excluding those on the Diamond Princess.
Most of the cases have been among Japanese evacuated from China’s Hubei Province.
Four flights have brought back hundreds of people, most of whom are undergoing “self-quarantine” in government-designated hotels.
All 197 people from a Jan. 29 flight who tested negative were able to leave quarantine on Wednesday night and another 200 or so from a second flight were poised to head home yesterday, public broadcaster NHK said.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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