SHANGHAI/BEIJING (REUTERS) – American passengers were taken off a cruise liner on Sunday (Feb 16) to fly home after being quarantined for two weeks off Japan.
An announcement aboard the Diamond Princess, where 3,700 passengers and crew have been held since Feb 3, told Americans to get ready to disembark on Sunday evening for charter flights home. Passengers wearing masks could later be seen waving through the windows of buses parked near the ship.
Of the roughly 400 Americans on the cruise, more than 40 are infected with the virus and will stay in Japan for treatment, said Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
“They are not going to go anywhere. They’re going to be in hospitals in Japan,” Dr Fauci told the CBS News programme Face The Nation. “People who have symptoms will not be able to get on the evacuation plane. Others are going to be evacuated starting imminently to air force bases in the United States.”
Kyodo News Agency said the flights carrying US passengers left Haneda Airport at around 1700 ET (2200 GMT).
Canadian, Italian, South Korean and Hong Kong passengers were expected to follow soon, after their governments also announced plans to repatriate passengers.
“Leaving in a few hours. No details. Might be going to Texas or Nebraska,” US passenger Gay Courter told Reuters.
Seventy new coronavirus cases were confirmed on board, bringing the total on the ship to 355, by far the largest cluster of cases outside China.
Dr Fauci told the Washington Post there were 44 infected Americans.
On board the Diamond Princess, American passenger Matthew Smith posted a photo on Twitter showing buses parked on the shore to take US nationals to the airport. American officials in hazmat suits and masks had visited his room to check if he would disembark. He said he wanted to stay.
The ship, owned by Carnival Corp, has been held in the port of Yokohama and those with the disease have been taken to hospital onshore. No one from the ship has died.
Countries that have announced plans to fly their citizens home from the ship say they will take them only if they are symptom-free, and quarantine them on arrival.
The US Department of Defence is preparing to receive two flights with passengers – one to land at Travis Air Force Base, California and the other at Kelly Field/Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The evacuees will be subject to a 14-day quarantine.
Another cruise ship, Holland America’s MS Westerdam, docked in Cambodia last Thursday after being rejected by ports elsewhere.
An 83-year-old American passenger tested positive upon arriving in Malaysia, the authorities there said. A second test requested by the cruise operator confirmed the finding.
Taiwan reported its first fatality on Sunday. The first fatality in Europe was reported on Saturday, an 80-year-old Chinese man who died at a Paris hospital.
Outside China, more than 500 cases have been confirmed, mostly of people who travelled from Chinese cities, with five deaths.
More than 1,600 people have died from the coronavirus in China since it was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in December and more than 68,000 people have been infected.
China’s response to the virus has included putting Hubei and its capital Wuhan – a city of 11 million people – on virtual lockdown.