The United States will evacuate nearly 400 American passengers under quarantine due to coronavirus on board Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess, the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Japan announced early Saturday.
The US State Department is working in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Service, along with other partner agencies to provide a charter aircraft to bring passengers back to the U.S.
“We continue to collaborate closely with HHS, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Government of Japan, and Carnival Cruise Lines on all aspects of this dynamic situation,” the Embassy said in the statement. “The U.S. Embassy remains in close contact with all relevant authorities to ensure U.S. citizens aboard the ship, and their families, are fully informed as the situation develops.”
According to a letter delivered to passengers with the announcement, the flight will arrive in Japan on Sunday night, local time. Then, Americans will be bussed with their belongings to the aircraft. Before they board, all will be screened for symptoms of coronavirus and those that aren’t permitted to board will receive care in Japan.
Those that take the flight will land at Travis Air Force Base in California, some others will continue to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. All travelers returning from a “high risk area” will be required to complete a full 14-day quarantine upon their return.
Matthew Smith, a passenger who has been keeping USA TODAY updated on the quarantined Diamond Princess, said Saturday that he was not planning to take the charter flight back to the U.S.
“We think the way they are handling this is not safe,” Smith said. “They want to take hundreds of people off the ship before the quarantine here has been completed and without them ever being tested, and they want to throw them on buses together, then a plane, then force them to serve another 14-day quarantine under unknown circumstances.”
The letter included a warning for American passengers choosing not to come back on the charter flight.
“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 letter reads.
Earlier in the week, it was announced that some passengers, starting with the medically vulnerable, would be let off the ship to complete the quarantine, which is scheduled to end on Feb. 19, shoreside. The first group of passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship disembarked in Yokahama, Japan, to complete their 14-day quarantine period for coronavirus off the ship, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Friday.
Eleven people, including two Americans, disembarked, according to the embassy. Officials are placing priority on elderly passengers with pre-existing conditions or in rooms with no balcony. All eligible passengers would have to test negative for coronavirus, the embassy said.
As of Thursday, at least 218 people aboard the ship had tested positive for coronavirus, including at least 20 Americans. The Diamond Princess is thought to be the largest group of coronavirus patients outside China, where the outbreak has infected almost 66,500 people and killed nearly 1,500 as of Saturday morning.
The Princess Cruises ship was carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew when it set sail and was quarantined after an initial 10 cases of coronavirus were reported Feb. 4.
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MS Westerdam: No longer in limbo
Meanwhile, the aimless journey of Holland America’s MS Westerdam has come to a close: Passengers began to disembark early Friday at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, their detour the result of coronavirus fears.
“The first passengers are off the Westerdam and headed home!” the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia tweeted early Friday local time. “We’re happy to greet them as they step onto dry land. Thank you to the government of Cambodia who helped this happen.”
The ship’s 1,455 passengers had been waiting for the all-clear from the Cambodian Health Ministry. After 20 samples were tested for coronavirus at the Pasteur Laboratory in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, passengers received permission to disembark.
Erik Elvejord, Holland America’s public relations director, said the process would take a few days, with the goal of having everyone off the ship by Sunday. The cruise originally was scheduled to end on Saturday.
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Contributing: Curtis Tate, Jayme Deerwester, USA TODAY, The Associated Press