The United States and Canada are sending planes to Japan to evacuate citizens from the Diamond Princess cruise liner, which has been caught up in the coronavirus epidemic.
US officials told passengers on the stricken vessel it would fly them home – pending health checks after they disembark, but all would have to undergo a further 14 days in quarantine once they get back to the United States.
“We are deeply grateful to the cruise line and government of Japan for working diligently to contain and control the spread of the illness,” the US Embassy in Tokyo wrote in an email to Americans on board the ship on Saturday.
“However, to fulfill our government’s responsibilities to US citizens under our rules and practices, as well as to reduce the burden on the Japanese health care system, the US government recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that US citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring.”
Passengers have been in quarantine for 10 days already, but tests on them and crew members showed there were risks of the virus spreading further while they were on board.
Canada made a similar announcement later on Saturday night (local time), saying it would also charter a plane to bring back as many of the 255 of its citizens on the cruise.
“This decision was taken because of the extraordinary circumstances faced by passengers on the Diamond Princess and to lighten the burden on the Japanese healthcare system,” said a statement by Global Affairs Canada said.
Japanese officials changed tact last week – given the vessel had possibly the highest number of known cases outside of China – and began evacuating people over 80 years old or those with underlying health problems.
Some 355 passengers and crew had tested positive to the virus as of Sunday morning.
There were 3,700 passengers and crew on the ship when it went into quarantine and those with the virus have been evacuated to hospitals in Japan.
The US embassy said the plane it is chartering – due to arrive in Japan on Sunday evening – would fly its citizens to Travis Air Force Base in California, while some would go to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The Canadian plane will take evacuees to an army base in Trenton, Ontario for 14 days quarantine.
Passengers with symptoms of the virus would have to get treatment in Japan.
“We understand this is frustrating and an adjustment, but these measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease,” the US embassy note said.
“Should you choose not to return on this charter flight, you will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make a final determination on this matter.”
Meanwhile, an 83-year-old American woman, who was a passenger on another cruise ship that docked in Cambodia, has tested positive for the virus after arriving by air in Malaysia.
First death in Europe
Meanwhile, a Chinese tourist has died in France after contracting the coronavirus – the first fatality outside Asia.
The victim was an 80-year-old man from Hubei province, French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn said. He arrived in France on 16 January and was placed in quarantine in a hospital in Paris on 25 January, but died on Friday after his condition deteriorated rapidly.
His was the fourth death reported outside mainland China – after deaths in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan.
Six people with the virus remain in hospital in France, but none were seriously ill, Buzyn said.
Note: This report was updated on Sunday afternoon.