TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan is set to let passengers leave a cruise ship quarantined off Yokohama, trying to assure the public it has done all it can to prevent spreading the new coronavirus from the vessel that has the most infections of any place in the world outside China.
Many of those who leave the ship will be subject to another 14 days of quarantine once they return home, such as the 200 people Australia plans to fly out on a charter flight.
"It's best to be safe, to protect our community," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week.
He added the US, Canada and others have put in place a similar policy and those who don't take the charter home won't be allowed into Australia for another 14 days.
All passengers are set to leave the Diamond Princess cruise between Wednesday (Feb 19) and Friday, ending a weeks-long period which saw the deadly disease spread through the luxury ship.
About one in seven people aboard became infected, with 542 people confirmed to have contracted the virus as of Tuesday.
About 500 people were set to leave the ship from around 10.30am on Wednesday, with no preference given to any particular nationality, Japan's Health Ministry said.
Those leaving on a foreign charter flight can stay on board even if they have permission to disembark.
South Korea sent its presidential plane to Japan on Tuesday to evacuate five of its 14 nationals on the ship, who will be placed in quarantine upon arrival. Canada and the UK are also planning charter flights. More than 74,000 people have been infected in China, the centre of the outbreak.
Princess Cruises said Group President Jan Swartz and other top officials will be in Japan to help in the disembarkation process and the company is refunding cruise costs for those aboard as well as transportation costs.
One American who stayed aboard is taking his chances that he will get a clean bill of health and be released in the next few days - giving him the opportunity to do some sightseeing.
"We hope to remain and see more of Tokyo and its surroundings," passenger Matthew Smith wrote on Twitter.
The ship, from Princess Cruises of Carnival Corp, has been quarantined since Feb 5 and samples have been taken from all passengers aboard.
The ship was carrying about 3,700 passengers and crew when it was placed in quarantine. Those who test negative and pass a final medical check will be allowed off the ship and free to return to their daily lives, according to the ministry.
Many aboard grew nervous as new infections were announced almost daily, coming with a cavalcade of ambulances arriving at the dock to take the infected off to hospitals.
"If you and your roommate are both negative and have no fever or respiratory symptoms, you will be able to prepare for disembarkation," according to a notice from the health ministry to those on board seen by Bloomberg.
Those who have tested positive have been taken to area hospitals, while people who tested negative but were in a room with someone infected are set for another two weeks of quarantine at a medical facility.
Japan will ask those with negative results to provide their contact information and will give them instructions for what to do if they start feeling sick, the ministry's notice said, while foreign nationals who have contracted the virus are set to stay in Japan for treatment.
A male Twitter user in his 30s aboard the ship who goes by the handle of @daxa-tw said he was in limbo.
"I don't know when I'll be getting off because my test results haven't come back yet," he said in a direct message.
The measures may not be enough to curtail the virus that has spread rapidly throughout the ship, health officials said.
With people aboard hailing from more than 50 countries, the end of the quarantine raises worries the vessel could become the source of a fresh wave of global infections.
"It's entirely possible to get tested, be negative and get on an airplane and be positive once you land," said Dr Keiji Fukuda, the director of the School of Public Health at Hong Kong University and a former World Health Organisation official who has led responses to outbreaks. "That's just how infections work."
Dr Fukuda says it's prudent for countries to quarantine passengers even though they have been under isolation and test results came back negative.
"It's providing a high level of safety for the place they're being brought back to."
The risk became apparent after the US evacuated more than 300 of its nationals over the weekend and received notice during the process that 14 passengers, who had been tested 2-3 days earlier, had contracted the virus.
An expert on infectious diseases said Japan has focused on preventing the virus from causing more fatalities.
"My view is that Japan's effort will be evaluated later not on the level of expansion of the spread, but on the rate of mortality," said Dr Shigeru Omi, a former WHO official who now sits on the Japanese government's expert panel on the coronavirus.
"That's why our focus is now on community prevention control so that we can reduce mortality rate and lower the speed of expansion," he said. "It's impossible to stop transmission."