First Group of Passengers Disembarks Quarantined Cruise Ship

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Published Feb 19, 2020 4:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, 443 passengers from the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess were cleared to depart the vessel in Yokohama. All have tested negative for coronavirus and have not displayed symptoms of infection, according to Japanese officials. Buses and taxis were waiting to bring the former passengers into Yokohama and Tokyo. 

Four nations - Australia, Canada, South Korea and Hong Kong - will be repatriating passengers by charter flight, and will provide them with an additional 14 days of quarantine in their respective home countries. Independent travel home will not be possible for the American nationals: the U.S. government has issued a bulletin informing them that they will not be allowed to board U.S.-bound commercial flights until after an additional two weeks off the ship. 

"This action has been taken because you are reasonably suspected of having had an exposure to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) while onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advised in a letter to American passengers. 

Quarantine questioned

Passengers and crew have been quarantined on board the Diamond Princess since February 5, and although they have now completed the 14 day onboard waiting period required by Japan's health ministry, experts have raised questions about whether the quarantine was effective - and whether some of those released may yet test positive. Newly infected patients may take several days to manifest symptoms and to show a positive lab test result, Dr. Benjamin Cowie of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity told the New York Times. 

To underline the risk of additional infections, 79 new cases were announced on board on Wednesday, bringing the total to 621. In addition, two elderly Japanese passengers from Diamond Princess who had been evacuated earlier in the quarantine passed away on Wednesday, Japan's ministry of health reported. With more than 600 people infected aboard the vessel, including elderly passengers, fatalities were likely given the COVID-19 coronavirus' estimated mortality rate of 1-2 percent. 

Dr. Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist from Kobe University, posted a social media message Tuesday night to warn that he had observed "chaotic" and ineffective public health measures on board the Diamond Princess. Iwata alleged that the Japanese officials in charge of the quarantine had not created designated "clean" areas for staff, and that healthcare workers wearing protective gear were mingling with workers who wore ordinary clothing. Three officials have come down with the disease after boarding the ship during the quarantine period. Dr. Iwata said that he had been asked to leave the ship after he advised officials of his findings - an account confirmed by vice health minister Gaku Hashimoto. 

"There was no single professional infection control person inside the ship, and there was nobody in charge of infection prevention as a professional," Dr. Iwata alleged. "The bureaucrats were in charge of everything."

Japan's ministry of health denied that the protocols aboard Diamond Princess were inadequate, and health minister Katsunobu Kato told Japan Times that the quarantine was "properly managed."

Passengers will disembark, crew will stay

All remaining passengers who have negative test results and who have not shared a cabin with passengers with positive test results will be allowed to leave by Friday, operator Princess Cruises said in an update.

However, crewmembers will not be released, according to multiple accounts. They will be moving from their shared quarters belowdecks to newly-vacated passenger cabins, where they will begin an additional two-week quarantine. The cabins will be fumigated and sanitized first, multiple crewmembers told Time Magazine. Crew will receive meals prepared on shore, and the galley facilities will be shut down. 

For those who have already contracted the disease and have been evacuated for medical assistance, Princess Cruises says that it will be monitoring their progress and will be offering travel assistance upon their recovery. All passengers, ill and well alike, will receive a full refund and a future cruise credit equal to the cruise fare paid for the voyage.