Two passengers from the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship have died, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
- NHK identified the pair as a man and woman in their 80s
- Their deaths were reported hours after 180 Australians evacuated from the ship landed in Darwin
- Hundreds more passengers were set to leave the ship on Thursday, according to the Japanese health ministry
Two elderly passengers taken off the Diamond Princess cruise ship because they were infected with a new virus have died, Japan’s health ministry said Thursday, becoming the first fatalities from the virus-stricken vessel.
Japan now has three deaths linked to the COVID-19 illness.
Japan’s NHK public television said both were Japanese in their 80s. A health ministry official only confirmed that they had been previously been hospitalized in serious condition and had existing chronic diseases. The official spoke anonymously, citing office protocol.
The new virus began in China late last year has sickened tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China’s Hubei province. The 621 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess’s original 3,711 people on board are the most anywhere outside China.
Japan’s government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato initially said those with negative virus tests had fulfilled the Japanese quarantine requirement and were free to walk out and go home on public transportation. Later Wednesday, he urged the former passengers to refrain from non-essential outings and try to stay home for about two weeks.
“COVID-19 is not 100% known, and a lot of people got infected on the Diamond Princess. Taking those factors into consideration, we believe taking extra caution will contribute to preventing the risk of future infections,” he said.
About 500 passengers had left the ship by Wednesday evening, and Japanese officials were to spend the next three days disembarking about 2,000 others.
The Diamond Princess was quarantined after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
One Passenger infected over 600 people on board the cruise liner
Crew members, who couldn’t be confined to their rooms because they were working, are expected to stay on the ship.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said a more controlled health watch for the crew would start immediately because they can isolate themselves by spreading out and using vacated passenger rooms.
Before the quarantine on the ship had ended, the United States evacuated more than 300 Americans and put them in quarantine in the U.S. for another 14 days. South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong evacuated their residents for quarantines as well, and Canada and Italy sent flights for their citizens as well.
The passengers were a man and a woman in their 80s, NHK said, citing an unidentified government source.
The cruise liner, with about 3,700 people on board, was put into quarantine in the port of Yokohama in early February.
So far more than 620 people from on board the ship have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
The Diamond Princess infections account for more than half of the world’s coronavirus cases outside mainland China.
Just hours before the news of the deaths, about 180 Australians from the ship landed in Darwin for another 14 days of quarantine.
They will be housed at the Howard Springs quarantine facility, which is also home to 266 evacuees who were evacuated from Wuhan in China just over a week ago.
Some passengers from Hong Kong have also been sent home, while Canadian citizens are due to leave on a charter flight in the early hours of Friday, Tokyo time, a Canadian Government spokeswoman said.
An evacuation flight for British nationals is also being organised.
Earlier in the week the United States evacuated more than 300 of its nationals on two chartered flights.
Japanese Government under fire for response
While citizens of Australia, the US and Hong Kong all face two more weeks of quarantine when they get home, that is not the case for Japanese residents.
That has raised questions over the country’s handling of the spread of the disease.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga has said the decision not to put them into quarantine was taken on the advice of Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID).
The NIID said there should be no problem if people had shown no symptoms for 14 days and had tested negative for the virus during the period their health was under surveillance.
Besides those on the cruise liner, Japan has another 84 cases of the virus, according to the WHO and Centre for Disease Control data collated by Johns Hopkins University.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato defended Japan’s response in Parliament, saying officials took expert advice and responded to issues on a daily basis.
In a move to reassure the public, the health ministry issued a statement in English and Japanese that said all passengers had been required to stay in their cabins since February 5 to contain the virus.
All of this comes just months before the world descends on Tokyo for the Summer Olympics, which start on July 24.
The spread of the virus has raised concerns about planning for the Games, as well as the impact on Japan’s economy.