Fourteen evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan were allowed to fly back to the United States Sunday despite testing positive for coronavirus, the U.S. State Department and Health and Human Services said in a joint statement. The evacuees were not symptomatic.
“These individuals were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols,” the statement, published Sunday, read.
The State Department was unaware the individuals had coronavirus when they were being removed from the ship; they had tested negative just a few days before, Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, said on a phone call with reporters.
“If those results had come back four hours earlier before we’d started to disembark the ship and before these people were evacuees within an evacuation system, then it would’ve been a different discussion.” Dr. William Walters, director of operational medicine at the U.S. Department of State, said on the call.
Kadlec said that individuals received multiple screenings when moving from ship to bus to plane and a more extensive medical assessment upon arrival.
Two charter flights carrying the Diamond Princess passengers landed at military bases in California and Texas overnight, starting the clock on a 14-day quarantine period to ensure those passengers don’t have coronavirus. In total, approximately 380 Americans were on board the Diamond Princess ship for the duration of the cruise and quarantine at sea.
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One plane carrying American passengers touched down at Travis Air Force Base in northern California just before 11:30 p.m. Sunday local time. A second flight arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas around 2½ hours later, early Monday.
The California flight had 177 people on it, seven of whom tested positive for coronavirus, Walters said. An additional three people were isolated during the flight for fever. Upon arrival, 171 stayed in Travis while six traveled to Omaha.
It’s unclear which passengers were transferred there and whether initial tests were positive or whether they were at risk for the virus.
The Texas flight had 151 people board and included the other seven who tested positive for coronavirus. Two additional passengers were isolated on account of fever. All passengers who tested positive for coronavirus then moved on to Omaha.
The aircraft design allowed passengers to sit in isolation enclosed by 10-feet-tall plastic at the tail of the aircraft.
13 high-risk passengers await test results at Nebraska Medical Center
Officials from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine confirmed that they are assessing 13 adults at their quarantine and biocontainment facility in Omaha.
“Late last night at about 2 or 3 a.m., we were asked to bring some individuals here who had either tested positive or had a high likelihood of testing positive because of symptoms they were exhibiting,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the executive director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security.
Twelve of them are housed in the quarantine center while one man was transferred to the hospital’s biocontainment unit for testing and observation because of symptoms including cough, fever, shortness of breath, lightheadedness and an undisclosed chronic condition that would make him particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.
“He is doing good and in stable condition at this time,” reported Shelly Schwedhelm, Nebraska Medicine’s executive director of emergency management and biopreparedness.
She went on to note that “the folks in the quarantine center have all been tested, and we’re waiting for those results.”
She added that the other 12 are isolated in “very nice rooms with Wi-Fi, TV and a small refrigerator – a lot of the amenities at hotels but with engineering controls” to prevent contaminated air from escaping.
Their test results, which are due back Monday afternoon, will determine whether the patients will be allowed to see their spouses or leave their rooms.
Regardless of whether they test positive or negative, all of the new arrivals will spend at least 14 days in the facility, and any who test positive will likely stay longer, said Dr. Mike Wadman, the co-medical director of the National Quarantine Unit.
Kratochvil says it’s possible that they may be asked to take more patients should more of the Diamond Princess passengers now in quarantine at the airbases test positive.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told the USA TODAY editorial board and reporters Monday that the original idea to keep people safely quarantined on the ship wasn’t unreasonable. But even with the quarantine process on the ship, virus transmission still occurred.
“The quarantine process failed,” Fauci said. “I’d like to sugarcoat it and try to be diplomatic about it, but it failed. People were getting infected on that ship. Something went awry in the process of the quarantining on that ship. I don’t know what it was, but a lot of people got infected on that ship.”
USA TODAY reached out to Princess Cruises for clarification on how many Americans from the ship have the virus.
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In a letter sent Sunday morning to American passengers and crew members, the U.S. Embassy in Japan announced flights would depart Yokohama to the U.S. that day and would be the “only opportunity for eligible passengers to fly to the United States until March 4, 2020, at the earliest.”
Last week, the cruise line announced that some passengers, starting with the medically vulnerable, would be let off the ship to complete the quarantine onshore. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Friday that the first group of passengers disembarked in Yokahama.
The Princess Cruises ship was carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew when it set sail and was quarantined after 10 cases of coronavirus were reported Feb. 4.
Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono tweeted that Japanese troops helped transport U.S. passengers on buses from the port in Yokohama to Tokyo’s Haneda airport.
Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Italy planned similar flights of passengers. Other governments will require the passengers to undergo a second 14-day quarantine.
Monday, Japan announced an additional 99 infections on the Diamond Princess, raising the ship’s total number of cases to 454. In the USA, there have been 15 confirmed cases. One U.S. citizen died in China on Feb 5.
Some remain on Holland America ship
Holland America said 255 passengers and 747 crew members remained on the MS Westerdam, which docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, after being turned away from ports in Japan, Thailand and Guam. One female American passenger tested positive for coronavirus at a Malaysian hospital over the weekend. She remains stable, and her travel companion tested negative, the cruise line said.
In a statement provided by spokesman Buck Banks, the cruise line said Cambodian health officials tested those on board Monday, a process expected to last several more days.
“Guests at a hotel in Phnom Penh have all completed the COVID-19 screening,” the cruise line said. “Results are being returned when completed, with the first batch of 406 all being negative. Cleared guests may travel home, and arrangements are being made for those guests. Guests in both locations are being very well cared for, including assisting with any medications needed.”
Contributing: Julia Thompson and Morgan Hines, USA TODAY; The Associated Press