TOKYO: The number of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 on a quarantined ship off Japan's coast has risen to 355, the country's health minister said Sunday (Feb 16).
"So far, we have conducted tests for 1,219 individuals. Of those, 355 people tested positive. Of those, 73 individuals are not showing symptoms," Katsunobu Kato told a roundtable discussion on public broadcaster NHK - a rise of 70 from the last government toll.
The new figures came as the United States was preparing to evacuate some of its citizens from the Diamond Princess, which has been in quarantine since Feb 5 in the port of Yokohama, near Tokyo.
Japan's efforts to control the viral infections on the vessel have prompted international concern.
The cruise ship arrived off the Japanese coast in early February with more than 3,700 passengers and crew members from more than 50 countries and regions.
It was placed under quarantine after authorities found that a passenger who got off the boat in Hong Kong during its voyage tested positive for the virus.
Officials kept finding new infections among the passengers and crew members and transporting them to Japanese hospitals, while others have been told to stay inside their individual cabins during the 14-day quarantine period, which should end on Wednesday.
Japan has not been able to test all those on board due to limited supplies of testing kits, facilities and manpower that are also needed by authorities tracking the spread of the virus among the general population.
The US, Canada and Hong Kong said those repatriated will go through another two-week quarantine period at home.
The US was preparing Sunday to evacuate some of its citizens but said those repatriated will go through another two-week quarantine period at home.
An on-board announcement late Sunday said Americans choosing to leave should get ready, according to tweets from passengers.
"Disembarkation will begin at approximately 9pm (1200 GMT)," the announcement said, asking the group to place their luggage outside their cabin doors.
Japan's Self-Defence Forces will use about 20 buses to transport the evacuees to Tokyo's Haneda Airport, according to TV Asahi.
"Based on the high number of COVID-19 cases identified on board the Diamond Princess, the Department of Health and Human Services made an assessment that passengers and crew members on board are at high risk of exposure," the US embassy said in a letter to its citizens on the boat.
Hong Kong has also said it will offer its 330 city residents on board the chance to take a charter flight back.
Canada announced a similar decision to repatriate its nationals, while Australia and Taiwan are considering such a move, according to local media reports.
Japan has not been able to test all those on board due to limited supplies of testing kits, facilities and manpower, which are also needed by authorities tracking the spread of the virus on land.
But the health ministry said Saturday that passengers older than 70 are being examined and those testing negative and in good health will be allowed to leave the ship from Wednesday.
Tests on younger passengers were expected to start Sunday and healthy people will be allowed to get off after Wednesday, it said.
Meanwhile, Japan has seen 53 infections across the nation, including a dozen new cases reported on Saturday and 13 cases among more than 760 Japanese nationals and their relatives repatriated from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak.
Kato said Japan will boost efforts to encourage people with possible infections to quickly seek medical care.
"If you look at the figures, we are seeing changing situations compared with before," Kato said on the NHK show.
"What we have to think about now is preventing cases from becoming severe and preventing deaths."