Japan will allow some elderly passengers on a quarantined cruise liner who test negative for the new coronavirus to disembark ahead of schedule, the health minister said on Thursday, as another 44 new cases were confirmed aboard the Diamond Princess.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said elderly passengers who have pre-existing conditions or are in windowless rooms would be allowed to leave starting from Friday, rather than the original target date of February 19, and complete their quarantine ashore.
With the number of those found to be infected on the cruise ship now up to 219, including one of the quarantine officers, concerns have been raised about conditions on the ship, where about 3,500 people remain on board.
The liner was quarantined on arrival in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on February 3 after a man who disembarked from the ship in Hong Kong before it traveled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus, which has now killed more than 1,350 in mainland China.
About 80% of the ship's passengers are aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s, according to Japanese media. The ship typically has a crew of 1,100 and a passenger capacity of 2,670.
"We will make every effort to ensure the safety and peace of mind of the people," Kato said in a televised news conference, without confirming the number of passengers who may leave ahead of schedule.
The minister said those who fit the criteria and wished to disembark would be housed in unspecified facilities provided by the Japanese government.
Those who had been in close contact with persons who tested positive would not be allowed to leave the ship, he said.
RECYCLED AIR 'NO RISK'
The British-flagged Diamond Princess is managed by Princess Cruise Lines, one of the world's largest cruise companies and a unit of Carnival Corp.
The additional 44 cases included 43 passengers and one crew member, with the total number of confirmed cases in Japan rising to 247, including those infected on the Diamond Princess, Kyodo news agency said.
Brandon Brown, an expert in international health at the University of California, Riverside, said Japan's initial decision to keep passengers and crew on board seemed "a wise first step."
Another option, he told Reuters, would be to take everyone off the ship, isolate those with symptoms and quarantine the rest in a place with more space and less interaction, but "with 4,000 people, this is no easy task."
He also said that recycled air on the ship – a concern of some passengers – did not pose a risk.
"The more likely explanation for the spread of infection during quarantine on the ship is the high passenger interaction due to close quarters and limited personal space on any cruise ship," Brown said.
The spread of the virus has raised concerns about the possible impact on the Summer Olympics set to be held in Tokyo from July 24.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics president Yoshiro Mori repeated on Thursday that the Games would go ahead as planned.
"I would like to clearly reiterate that cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo Games are not being considered," he said at the start of a meeting with International Olympic Committee Coordination Commission Chief John Coates.
Hundreds of infections have been reported in more than two dozen countries and territories besides China, but only two people have died from the virus outside mainland China - one in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.
Japanese nationals who have been staying in hotels or other facilities since returning on four charter flights from China's Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, have begun going home.
All 197 people from a January 29 flight who tested negative were either home or en route and another 200 or so from a second flight can head home later on Thursday, public broadcaster NHK said.