YOKOHAMA: Two passengers from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship moored near Tokyo have died and 29 people were in a serious condition, the Japanese government said on Thursday (Feb 20), as a second group of passengers disembarked after two weeks quarantined on board.
Two Japanese officials have also tested positive for the infection, a health ministry official told a news conference.
One of the officials was from the health ministry and the other from the Cabinet Secretariat, and both had worked on the Diamond Princess.
Three other officials, from the health ministry and quarantine office, had previously tested positive for the virus.
The deceased man and woman, both Japanese and in their 80s, were taken off the cruise ship last week and died in hospital, the first fatalities among the more than 600 passengers and crew members who have tested positive for the virus.
The man had a pre-existing condition of bronchial asthma and a history of angina treatment, the health ministry said in a statement, but the woman had no known pre-existing conditions. The direct cause of her death was pneumonia.
"I pray for their souls and offer condolences to their bereaved families," Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told MPs.
"The two were sent to medical facilities when they showed symptoms. I believe that they received the best possible treatment," he said.
Kyodo news agency reported 29 people were in a serious condition, including one who had earlier tested negative for the virus. The health ministry could not immediately confirm the reports.
Japan has well over half the known cases outside China due to the ship infections and the rapid spread of the virus and the quarantine operation has sparked criticism of authorities just months before Tokyo is due to host the Summer Olympics.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Japan's efforts. He told a news conference that after measures were put in place to isolate passengers on Feb 5, the number of new infections was now almost at zero. "In that sense, we believe the isolation was effective," he said.
Japan's health ministry reported on Thursday evening that another 13 people on the ship have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus, bringing the total number of infections so far to 634.
Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them
In a move to reassure the public, the health ministry also issued a statement in both English and Japanese that said all passengers had been required to stay in their cabins since Feb 5 to contain the virus. The day before, as passengers were being screened, ship events continued, including dances, quiz games and an exercise class.
Criticism of the government has played out in social media as well as in parliament, where Health Minister Katsunobu Kato was grilled again on Thursday by an opposition lawmaker.
SAFE TO GO HOME?
About 500 passengers began disembarking on Thursday while another 100 people were to leave for chartered flights home, a health ministry official said.
An initial batch of passengers who had tested negative and shown no symptoms left the vessel on Wednesday.
Those who have shared a room with people testing positive were required to remain in quarantine, as were crew. The ministry could not confirm how many people remained on board, or when disembarkation would be complete.
Two Russian nationals aboard the Diamond Princess have been diagnosed with COVID-19, said Russia's embassy in Japan in a post on social media on Thursday, adding that they would be taken to hospital.
This brings the number of Russians who have contracted the virus on the Diamond Princess cruise liner to three.
More than 150 Australian passengers arrived home after a pre-dawn departure from Tokyo's Haneda airport. They face another 14-day quarantine.
Some Hong Kong passengers also went home, while Canadians were due to leave on a charter flight in the early hours of Friday, a Canadian government spokeswoman said. An evacuation flight was also being arranged for British nationals to leave Tokyo on Friday.
Earlier in the week, the United States evacuated more than 300 nationals on two chartered flights.
A US State Department official said there were still about 45 US citizens on board the cruise ship as of Thursday.
Americans flown back will have to complete another 14 days quarantine, as will returning Hong Kong residents.
Disembarked Japanese passengers, however, face no such restrictions, a decision that has sparked concern.
The NIID said there should be no problem if people had shown no symptoms for 14 days and had tested negative for the virus during the period their health was under surveillance.
Besides those on the cruise liner and returnees brought home from the epicentre of the epidemic Wuhan in China, about 70 cases of domestic infections have been confirmed in Japan, including 25 in Tokyo, NHK reported.