American passengers on Sunday frantically prepared to evacuate a cruise ship that has been quarantined for more than 10 days in the Japanese port city of Yokohama, as hundreds of people on board fell ill with the coronavirus.
As the Americans scrambled to pack their bags and prepare their own meals for a chartered flight to the United States, Japanese health officials said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases found on the ship, the Diamond Princess, had grown by 70, to 355.
“Can’t get off here fast enough,” Sarah Arana, 52, a medical social worker from Paso Robles, Calif., told reporters on Sunday.
The United States Embassy in Japan had recommended that American citizens stay aboard the ship during a 14-day quarantine period. But it suddenly changed course on Saturday, citing “a rapidly evolving situation” as conditions appeared to worsen.
American passengers said they were told to prepare to leave the ship at 9 p.m. local time. Their flight was scheduled to depart Haneda Airport in Tokyo at 3 a.m. on Monday. Officials said they would be taken to one of two military air bases in the United States.
But the process, taken deck by deck, went slowly. By close to 11 p.m., many were still waiting in their rooms.
Passengers on the charter were told there would be no overhead luggage space on the flight, so all carry-ons had to fit under the seats in front of them, and shipped luggage could not exceed 70 pounds. They would be flying on a converted 747 cargo plane, the officials said, which could be cold, so they were advised to shower and dress warmly for the flight. They were also advised to bring their own food.
Late in the afternoon, as buses lined up on the pier, American officials dressed in protective suits knocked on the cabin doors of American citizens to inform them that they needed to put their luggage out at 6 p.m. to prepare for the 9 p.m. transfer.
Rachel Torres, 24, who had been on her honeymoon with her husband, Tyler, also 24, said they were trying to clean their stateroom so as not to leave a mess for their cabin steward.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
What do you need to know? Start here.
Updated Feb. 10, 2020
What is a Coronavirus?
It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
How contagious is the virus?
According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
Where has the virus spread?
The virus originated in Wuhan, China, and has sickened tens of thousands of people in China and at least two dozen other countries.
How worried should I be?
While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
Who is working to contain the virus?
World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
What if I’m traveling?
The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
How do I keep myself and others safe?
Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
- What is a Coronavirus?
“We didn’t sleep much last night,” said Ms. Torres. In preparation for the flight, she said, the couple were “drinking as much water as we can to hydrate for the flight since we will be wearing masks on the plane.”
Including the cases aboard the Diamond Princess, Japan has recorded the highest number of infections from the new coronavirus outside mainland China. Worldwide, more than 68,500 people have been infected, and at least 1,669 have died, almost all in mainland China.
When the ship was placed under quarantine, more than 3,700 passengers and crew aboard were on board, including about 400 Americans. Those found to have the virus and some particularly vulnerable passengers were taken off the ship.
The American Embassy in Tokyo said those with coronavirus infections or symptoms would not be allowed to take the chartered flight.
Once in the United States, the passengers will be required to undergo a two-week quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., or Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio.
Those who do not take the charter will not be allowed to travel to the United States until March 4, two weeks after they would have otherwise been allowed to leave the ship on Wednesday, the embassy said.
Some remained hesitant about whether to take the charter flight. Linda Tsukamoto, 63, a retired retail manager from Marina del Rey, Calif., said she had signed up for the evacuation flight, but changed her mind at the last minute.
Ms. Tsukamoto stuck a Post-it note on her door reading, “I’m staying.” Three military doctors came to her door and advised her to go. Their emphatic tone, she said, was “scary,” but she is standing her ground.
“I’d rather go home first class on United Airlines than a cold, noisy military charter when the Japanese Ministry of Health releases us,” she said. “I refuse to be fearful but respect the U.S. government to help others who feel more comfortable rushing home.”
According to a letter from the Diamond Princess staff to passengers on Sunday, passengers who test negative for the virus and show no symptoms will be allowed to leave the ship on Feb. 19. The letter noted that passengers “may be subject to additional quarantine requirements by their country of destination when leaving Japan.”
After 11 days of being isolated in their windowless cabin, John and Carol Montgomery were finally preparing to board a bus to take them to the airport, where they would then fly next to hundreds of people for about nine hours.
“It feels surreal,” said Ms. Montgomery, 67, a retired administrative assistant from San Clemente, Calif.
With at least 40 Americans from the ship having tested positive for the coronavirus during the quarantine period, some will be left behind in Japan when the charter flights depart.
For some, that means family separations. John Haering, 63, who was taken to a hospital in Chiba Prefecture last week with a fever and tested positive for the virus, will have to stay while his wife, Melanie, boards the charter flight.
“She’ll be in California quarantine,” Mr. Haering said by telephone from his hospital bed. “And I’m staying here, obviously.”
Mr. Haering said he was angry that the United States government had not acted earlier.
“If they were going to fly people out, they should have flown them out in the very beginning,” he said. “That way, we wouldn’t have sat there for 12 days, all of us getting sicker. I wouldn’t have been in the hospital; I would have been in the U.S. getting the treatment that I needed, and I could have been in quarantine there.”
Tung Pi Lee, 79, was whisked away from the ship Wednesday night with a fever, leaving his wife on the ship. JoAnn LaRoche Lee, one of Mr. Lee’s daughters, said she and her siblings did not want her mother to try to stay in Japan with their father for fear she would not be allowed to come back if she did not take the charter flight.
As for their father, said Ms. Lee, “We’re just kind of trusting that the State Department will be able to facilitate my dad’s return.”
The United States previously evacuated about 850 people on five charter flights from Wuhan, the city in central China where the coronavirus emerged late last year.
Canada and Hong Kong also said they would charter flights for passengers on the cruise ship, though it was not immediately clear when those flights would leave. The Philippines’ labor minister said on Sunday that the country was working to bring home more than 500 crew members.
The Australian government said it was sending an expert to Yokohama and would consider the best options for more than 200 of its citizens aboard the ship. The Israeli government said three of its citizens on the ship had been infected. They are the first confirmed Israeli cases.
About 330 Hong Kong residents are on the ship, including 260 Chinese citizens and 70 foreigners. Eleven of the Hong Kong passengers have been infected, the Hong Kong government said.
An 80-year-old man who took the Diamond Princess from Yokohama to Hong Kong in January tested positive for the coronavirus on Feb. 1, the first documented case on the ship.
Eimi Yamamitsu, Ben Dooley and Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.