Feb. 17 (UPI) — Chinese health officials said the death toll rose by 105 over Sunday as governments rushed to evacuate citizens from a cruise ship off Japan’s eastern coast that is home to the world’s second-largest and still growing cluster of COVID-19 patients.
Japanese health officials have reported in the last 24 hours 72 new cases of COVID-19 among the passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship under quarantine in Yokohama Port since Feb. 3, increasing the ship’s number of confirmed cases to at least 357. The next highest number of infections outside mainland China is Singapore with 75.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement early Monday that two chartered planes with more than 300 U.S. citizens and their family members who had been quarantined 12 days on the cruise ship had taken off from Japan and were en route to the United States.
The U.S. Embassy in Japan said the plane took off at 7:05 a.m.
The passengers were evaluated by medical staff from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and were all deemed clear to fly, the State Department said in a joint statement with Health and Human Services.
Fourteen passengers confirmed earlier to be infected with COVID-19 were moved to a “specialized containment area” of the aircraft to isolate them from the other passengers, the statement read.
The State Department said it made the call to transport the infected patients back to the United States following consultations with health officials.
“All passengers are being closely monitored by medical professionals throughout the flight, and any who become symptomatic will be moved to the specialized containment area, where they will be treated,” the departments said in the statement.
Upon arrival in the United States, the passengers will disembark at one of two military bases — either the Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, Calif., or the Joint Base San Antonio in Texas — where they will be subjected to a second 14-day quarantine.
In a letter to passengers of the cruise ship on Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Japan said the decision to evacuate them was made as those on board “are at high risk of exposure.”
News of the planes’ departures comes as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Monday that they would be evacuating more than 200 citizens from the ship upon chartered planes on Wednesday.
He said they were taking the measure on the advice of medical professionals. On return to Australia, the evacuees will be subjected to another 14-day quarantine due to the virus’ spread upon the ship despite it being under a nearly two-week lockdown, Morrison said in a press conference.
“At this stage, it is not clear how further cases of infection have occurred on that vessel … but because of the nature of the quarantine not being able to be assured, for those more than 200 Australians who will be returning to Australia we are going to have to require a further 14-day quarantine period.”
He said he was “very frustrated” about having to impose a second quarantine measure upon the evacuees “but our first responsibility — and I’m sure all Australians will agree — is to protect the health and safety of Australians here in Australia.”
The announcement comes as 242 Australians evacuated earlier this month from the virus’ epicenter of Wuhan to Australia’s remote Christmas Island were set to be released following their 14-day quarantine period on Monday.
Australia has transported nearly 280 citizens since early this month from China amid the outbreak.
Those being evacuated from the cruise ship will be joining others already under quarantine at a Howard Springs facility near Darwin, he said.
“It’s frustrating and it’s unfortunate, but it is absolutely necessary to ensure we put the measures in place that have been so effective in containing the spread of this virus,” he said.
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said the second quarantine is necessary due to the rate the disease is spreading on the ship.
He said the Australians have already been under 12 days of lockdown on the vessel, but health officials aren’t sure why more people are coming down infected, and they can’t ensure that any of the Australians evacuated would be sickened with the virus.
“We cannot be sure and if we cannot be sure, we have to take precautions,” he said.
Chinese health officials increased the death toll on Monday to 1,770 since the outbreak began in December.
Among the 105 new deaths, 100 were reported in the epicenter Hubei Province with 76 in the capital of Wuhan where the disease is believed to have emerged.
The number of infected also rose by 2,048 to 70,548 over Sunday, China’s National Health Commission said Monday in its daily update on COVID-19.
Of the confirmed cases, 10,844 have recovered and have since been released from the hospital, it said.
Outside of mainland China, five people have died, including a Taiwanese man in his 60s despite having no history of travel to the mainland.
Taiwan’s ministry of health said Sunday he had died the day prior of pneumonia-induced sepsis caused by COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Japan’s fifth government-chartered flight landed in Wuhan early Monday, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK News.
The flight was to return later in the day with several dozen people on board, the government said, adding it will be its last chartered flight from the virus-stricken country after having returned some 760 people from Hubei.