TOKYO: Another 67 people onboard a cruise ship quarantined off Japan's coast have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the country's health minister said on Saturday (Feb 15).
The new cases, from 217 tests, bring the number of people diagnosed on the Diamond Princess to 285, excluding a quarantine officer who also contracted the illness.
The United States said earlier on Saturday it would send an aircraft to Japan to bring back US passengers on the ship.
In a message to Americans, the embassy said the US government "recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that US citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring".
It warned that those who return will have to undergo another 14 days of quarantine when they arrive in the United States.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK said 400 Americans were on board the cruise ship and the plane will leave Tokyo's Haneda airport as soon as early Monday.
While some Americans on the ship have urged their government to extract them from the boat, others on board criticised the plan.
"Incredibly disappointed that the US Government has decided to throw a monkey wrench into the quarantine we have maintained here on board the Diamond Princess," tweeted Matt Smith, an American lawyer.
"The US Government... wants to take us off without testing, fly us back to the US with a bunch of other untested people, and then stick us in 2 more weeks of quarantine? How does that make any sense at all?"
QUARANTINE TIMELINE IN DOUBT
There were more than 3,700 people on the ship when it arrived off the Japanese coast, but more than 200 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and taken to local hospitals.
But a message broadcast on the ship by the captain on Saturday night cast doubt on that timeline.
"The Japanese government has informed us that they may start a new testing process for guests beginning February 18," the message said, warning that it would take several days to complete and results would not be available for around three days.
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"So guests who are tested on February 18 and have negative test results may be able to disembark beginning February 21," the message said.
Those who had close contact with anyone who tested positive would have to restart their quarantine from the date of their last close contact, he added.
And crew on board will go into a new quarantine period once the passengers have left the ship, though details of how long that would last were not immediately clear, the broadcast said.
The illness has killed more than 1,500 people and infected at least 66,000 in neighbouring China while spreading to more than two dozen other countries, sparking an unprecedented containment effort.
On Friday, the ship began allowing elderly passengers who test negative for the novel coronavirus to leave a quarantined cruise ship and finish their isolation in government-designated lodging.
On Saturday, the health ministry confirmed another 12 infections in Japan, including taxi drivers in Tokyo and patients at a western Japanese hospital where two doctors have already tested positive.
Excluding the cases on the ship, and an infected quarantine officer, Japanese authorities have so far diagnosed at least 52 people with the virus, which has killed more than 1,500 and infected at least 66,000 in China.