Coronavirus: Cruise ship evacuations begin; death toll rises to 1,670

Buses with closed curtains arrive Sunday at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal where the Diamond Princess cruise ship is docked in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Franck Robichon/EPA-EFE

Feb. 16 (UPI) — The death toll from the coronavirus rose to 1,670 Sunday as evacuations began overnight from a cruise ship that had been quarantined in Japan with 356 confirmed cases of the infection.

The Chinese National Health Commission reported 1,665 deaths in mainland China, which is an increase of 142 deaths from the day before. Taiwan reported its first death Saturday and the other fatalities were in Hong Kong, Japan, France and the Philippines.

The first death was reported on Jan. 11 in Wuhan, the epicenter of coronavirus.

In all, there have been 69,278 confirmed cases, including 68,500 in mainland China. Hubei Province, which includes Wuhan, had 56,249 cases. On Jan. 25, there were 1,985 cases in China.

The number of confirmed cases in the United States is 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

The largest number of coronavirus cases outside mainland China are aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been docked off the Japanese port city of Yokohama, south of Tokyo, since Feb 3.

About 3,600 people were on the ship. An additional 70 confirmed cases were announced Saturday.

The quarantine period is scheduled to end Wednesday.

“It’s like a prison sentence for something I did not do,” Karey Mansicalco told CNN from her cabin. “They are holding us hostage for absolutely no reason.”

Mansicalco is among 400 Americans without the infection who will be flown on planes chartered by the U.S. government with Kalitta Air. Of the U.S. passengers, 46 have tested positive for the virus, and they will have to remain on the ship.

Two Boeing 747 jets landed in Tokyo at Haneda Airport late Sunday.

American passenger Matthew Smith reported the evacuation process was underway at 9 p.m. local time with buses to take them to the airport. Buses were escorted by a police convoy.

“The fleet of coaches — 11 in all it appears — lined up to ‘save’ the Americans,” Smith posted on Twitter. “An American woman — who last night could be heard shouting, ‘Get me off this ship’ — stands on her balcony chanting ‘USA, USA.’ Of course, in contravention of the rules of quarantine, she’s not wearing a face mask, & she’s talking with a passenger on the adjacent balcony well within 6 feet of each other. We scurry back inside. If there are secondary infections onboard, this is why: idiots who don’t know any better. And you wanted me to get on a bus with her?”

On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo sent a notice to Americans on board the Diamond Princess that details the evacuation process.

Once in the United States, there will be another 14 days of mandatory quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., or Lackland Air Force Base near San Antoni. Anyone who chose not to get on the flight would have to wait another 14 days in Japan.

Americans will not be charged for the charter flight but will be responsible for travel to their homes from the quarantine sites. Immediate family members who are not U.S. citizens will also be accommodated on these flights.

On Wednesday, the Japanese government plans to begin testing all those who remain on board for the virus.

“From tragedy to comedy to farce,” Smith earlier tweeted. “The US government instead wants to take us off without testing, fly us back to the US with a bunch of other untested people, and then stick us in 2 more weeks of quarantine? How does that make any sense at all?

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Other nations have announced plans to evacuate passengers. On Saturday, Canada said it chartered a plane to evacuate its citizens from the Diamond Princess.

Once all passengers have left the ship, crew members face another 14-day quarantine.

Princess Cruises announced Sunday it would cancel voyages aboard the ship for three months.

“Based on the prolonged quarantine period, and the anticipated time to prepare the ship to return to service, we unfortunately must cancel additional Diamond Princess voyages through the April 20 voyage,” the cruise line posted on Twitter.

Another cruise ship had been docked in Cambodia because of coronavirus fears.

The company that owns the Westerdam cruise ship, which docked in Cambodia, has acknowledged that one of its disembarked passengers has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

On Monday, all 2,257 passengers and crew on board Westerdam were screened for illness and no individual was identified with an elevated temperature, Holland American cruise line said.

But on Sunday, the company acknowledged one of its disembarked passengers tested positive for the virus.

The Chinese agency reported 2,009 cases of confirmed infections, 1,918 cases of suspected infections and 219 new serious cases. A total of 1,323 patients were released from hospitals after being cured. And 29,788 people who had had close contact with infected patients were freed from medical observation.

So far, 529,418 people have been identified as having had close contact with infected patients with 158,764 under medical observation.

On Saturday, a 60-year-old man died of complications from pneumonia and septicaemia, Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said.

“The man had not traveled abroad. Because Singapore has reported quite a few examples of coronavirus with no travel history we decided to check if he was infected and found he tested positive for the virus,” Chen said.

The man had worked as an unlicensed taxi driver, and his passengers were mostly from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, Chen said.

Authorities immediately traced people he had contacted, including his family and the medical personnel who treated him. Only one of the man’s relatives had been infected, but he was showing no symptoms.

In all, Taiwan has 20 confirmed cases of the disease.

“The guest departed Westerdam February 14 and later reported feeling ill at the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, airport,” Holland America posted on Twitter. “The guest was taken to the hospital and is reported to be in stable condition. The guest’s traveling companion tested negative for COVID-19.”

On Saturday, about 400 Chinese citizens in Vietnam returned to China on three Vietnam Airlines flights, People’s Daily reported.

Zhejiang Hisun Pharmaceutical has received approval to start selling favipiravir as a potential treatment for the virus, according to a filing Monday by the Chinese pharmaceutical company. More than 70 patients have participated in the trial program, including those receiving a placebo, in Guangdong’s Shenzhen city. Toyama Chemical of Japan is developing the drug against RNA viruses.

Chloroquine diphosphate and remdesivir are also undergoing human trials in the country.

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