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The U.S. government is preparing to evacuate Americans who have been quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan for more than a week after dozens of people on board tested positive for the novel coronavirus earlier this month.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on Saturday sent a letter to passengers and crew on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship detailing plans for a voluntary evacuation for U.S. citizens and their immediate family from the ship to take place Sunday evening.
Embassy officials said Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland may receive cruise ship evacuees. Following the same protocol as with previous evacuations, the plane will land in the U.S. at Travis Air Force Base in California. Passengers not showing symptoms of coronavirus at the time of their arrival may be directed to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where they will remain under a 14-day quarantine.
The local Air Force base has already received 91 evacuees who returned to the U.S. from China’s Hubei province. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed one of those evacuees tested positive for coronavirus, marking the 15th case in the U.S.
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The person was transported from the base in a special ambulance from the Infectious Disease Response Unit to Methodist Texsan Hospital, where the patient is in maximum isolation and in stable condition.
Over 3,600 people, including more than 400 Americans, are on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been quarantined for more than a week at the port of Yokohama after the coronavirus was diagnosed in a man who had disembarked days earlier in Hong Kong.
So far, 218 people on the ship have tested positive for the virus.
Matthew Smith, an American passenger, said he would prefer to see out the next few days of quarantine in his cabin than leave early and potentially spend another two weeks in isolation in the U.S.
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“Incredibly disappointed that the U.S. Government has decided to throw a monkey wrench into the quarantine we have maintained here on board the Diamond Princess. If we stay on board through next week, we will be tested and will likely come up negative,” Smith tweeted on Saturday. “But 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 two more weeks of quarantine? How does that make any sense at all?”
The patient at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland is the 15th to be diagnosed in the U.S.
Japan’s health ministry allowed 11 passengers to leave on Friday, giving priority to those aged 80 and older and those who have preexisting medical conditions or are staying in windowless cabins.
In China, where the outbreak started, confirmed cases grew to nearly 66,500 by Friday night, according to China’s National Health Commission. More than 1,300 people have died globally, all but four in mainland China. The first death outside Asia was reported Friday – a Chinese tourist in France.
The email from the U.S. Embassy says that the U.S. government “recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring.”
The Japanese government said Saturday that it “appreciates” the U.S.’s decision to offer voluntary evacuation to American citizens on board the Diamond Princess.
“The Government of Japan believes that the measures taken by the U.S. Government will help mitigate the Government of Japan’s burden regarding medical response in the Diamond Princess and appreciates such measures,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Saturday.