About 380 U.S. citizens and their family members on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama, Japan, are being offered the opportunity to be sent back to the United States via a direct flight organized by the State Department.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo told American passengers and crew on board in an email (pdf) sent 3:24 a.m. Saturday Tokyo time that a chartered aircraft is set to arrive in Japan late Sunday, Feb. 16.
“To fulfill our government’s responsibilities to U.S. citizens under our rules and practices, as well as to reduce the burden on the Japanese healthcare system, 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 email reads.
It adds: “Buses will move you and your belongings from the ship to the aircraft. Passengers will be screened for symptoms and we are working with our Japanese partners to ensure that any symptomatic passengers receive the required care in Japan if they cannot board the flight.”
The aircraft will land at Travis Air Force Base in California, and some passengers will then continue onward to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the embassy said. Evacuees will go through further health screenings in the United States and also undergo quarantine for at least 14 days.
“Should you choose not to return on this charter flight, you will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time,” the embassy told American passengers and crew in the email. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make a final determination on this matter.”
U.S. citizens aboard the Diamond Princess, hospitalized at local hospitals, as well as their friends and family can continue to reach the U.S. Embassy at USGShipContact@state.gov or at (+81) 03-3224-5000.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Saturday it was coordinating with the U.S. government on the evacuation. The Japanese government believes the steps taken by the United States will ease Japan’s burden regarding the medical response to the situation on the Diamond Princess and it appreciates these measures, the ministry said.
On Thursday, Japanese health workers confirmed 44 new cases of COVID-19 virus on the cruise ship, bringing the total to at least 218. The vessel entered the Yokohama port on Feb. 3 and was quarantined for two weeks, after a man who disembarked the ship in Hong Kong before it traveled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus. The quarantine is set to end on Wednesday, Feb. 19.
The Department of Defense (DOD) said it has named 11 military bases that could serve as potential quarantine areas for U.S. coronavirus cases after being asked by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In particular, the installations “near 11 major airports that could house additional passengers” could be used if HHS facilities become filled, the DOD said in a recent news release.
The United States currently has 15 confirmed cases of the virus. The latest case was confirmed in Texas on Feb. 12—the first known case in the state. The other confirmed cases in the United States are in California, Arizona, Washington state, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Massachusetts. At least one, a patient in Washington, has been released from the hospital.
The new virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early December. It is in the same family of pathogens that cause the flu and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The most common symptoms reported from the new virus are fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing, although Chinese researchers have noted other symptoms, such as fatigue, diarrhea, chest pains, and headaches.
The incubation period—or amount of time from exposure to the onset of symptoms—is said to be up to 14 days. However, a recent study from Chinese researchers, which examined over 1,000 cases of the disease, found a patient who didn’t exhibit symptoms for as long as 24 days. One Chinese health official in Jinzhong, a city in Shanxi Province, also noted a case of one female patient who was hospitalized 40 days after traveling to Wuhan; she was diagnosed two days after hospitalization.
Health experts have confirmed that the virus is contagious even when the infected person has not yet exhibited symptoms. But there’s still no consensus as to how potent the virus is.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Wednesday warned that the virus could “take a foothold” inside the United States, saying that at some point, “we are likely to see community spread in the U.S. or in other countries,” according to a press conference.
The CDC advises that people should not travel to China and that they should avoid contact with those infected with the virus, and wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
Eva Fu and Reuters contributed to this report.