The United States will evacuate American passengers under quarantine due to coronavirus on board Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess in Japan, the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Japan announced Saturday.
The evacuation comes days before the required two-week quarantine is supposed to end Feb. 19. There are about 400 American passengers on board the ship, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, Princess Cruises announced Saturday an additional 67 cases of coronavirus were identified on the ship, bringing the total to at least 285 cases of coronavirus.
In a video posted on Twitter Saturday, Princess Cruises President Jan Swartz addressed passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess and outlined preliminary steps for the end of the quarantine. The information was also shared in a letter to passengers and crew.
“While the final plans have not been confirmed to us, the Japanese government has informed us that they may start a new testing process for guests beginning Feb. 18,” Swartz said in the video, noting testing could take a few days to complete and that it should take at least three days individual test results back. “So guests who are tested on Feb. 18 and have negative test results may be able to disembark beginning Feb. 21.”
Passengers who test positive for coronavirus will be transferred to a medical facility, but it’s unclear if more screening will be needed for those whose tests are negative. “We do not know if any country or airlines may have additional requirements,” Swartz said.
She also said anyone who shared a cabin or was in close contact with a person who tested positive may have to restart their quarantine from the date the close contact ended.
But even when passengers are allowed to disembark, crew members may face “a more formal quarantine.”
“I know this is disappointing news for all of our teammates,” Swartz said. “It’s disappointing for all of us.”
She reiterated Princess’ previously announced commitment to give crewmembers two months of paid time off after their quarantine ended.
“The health and safety of everyone on board has been our priority throughout this entire period while acting under the direction of the Japanese Ministry of Health,” Swartz said as she thanked passengers and crew for their “continued patience in this ever-changing situation.”
How the U.S. plans to evacuate Americans
The U.S. State Department is coordinating with the Department of Health and Human Services along with other agencies to provide a charter aircraft to bring passengers back to the U.S.
The flight will arrive in Japan on Sunday night, according to a letter sent to passengers. Americans will be bused to the aircraft and will be screened for coronavirus before boarding; symptomatic passengers will receive care in Japan if they cannot board the flight, the letter says.
The flight will land first at Travis Air Force Base in California, where some passengers will stay, while others will continue on 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 quarantined Diamond Princess, told USA TODAY 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 Saturday. “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.”
Americans who choose not to return on the charter flight will be unable to return to the U.S. for a period of time, the letter said, though it did not indicate how long that would be.
Earlier in the week, the cruise line announced that some passengers, starting with the medically vulnerable, would be let off the ship to complete the quarantine. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Friday that the first group of passengers disembarked in Yokahama, Japan, to complete their 14-day quarantine period for coronavirus off the ship.
So far, 12 people have voluntarily disembarked and 55 in that group that tested negative for coronavirus stayed on board, Princess Cruises said in a release provided by spokesperson Negin Kamali. 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.
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.
Princess canceling Asia cruises
The cruise line also announced late Saturday on its website and social media that it would cancel Asia voyages on two of its ships, the Sapphire Princess and Majestic Princess. In the announcement Princess cited “port restrictions and closures and lack of predictability regarding port availability in our Southeast Asia itineraries.”
Affected passengers will receive a full refund of their cruise fare and prepaid packages and excursions as well as a credit for a future cruise. Voyages are affected through April 2 on the Majestic Princess and through June 11 on the Sapphire Princess. Several Majestic Princess voyages have also been modified.
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Contributing: Curtis Tate, Jayme Deerwester, USA TODAY