Coronavirus quarantine: US to evacuate nearly 400 Americans on board cruise ship in Japan

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The United States will evacuate American passengers under quarantine due to coronavirus on board Princess Cruises' Diamond Princess in Japan, the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Japan announced early Saturday.

The evacuation comes days before the required two-week quarantine is supposed to end Feb. 19. There are about 400 American passengers on board the ship, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, Princess Cruises announced Saturday an additional 67 cases of coronavirus were identified on the ship, bringing the total to at least 285 cases of coronavirus.

The U.S. State Department is coordinating with the Department of Health and Human Services along with other agencies to provide a charter aircraft to bring passengers back to the U.S. 

The flight will arrive in Japan on Sunday night, according to a letter sent to passengers. Americans will be bused to the aircraft and will be screened for coronavirus before boarding; symptomatic passengers will receive care in Japan if they cannot board the flight, the letter says.

The flight will land first at Travis Air Force Base in California, where some passengers will stay, while others will continue on to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

A bus driven by a chauffeur in protective gear departs the dock occupied by the quarantined Diamond Princess. Eleven passengers who are elderly or have pre-existing medical conditions were removed from the ship Friday and will finish out their quarantine on shore in Japan.

All travelers returning from a "high risk area" will be required to complete a full 14-day quarantine upon their return. 

Matthew Smith, a passenger quarantined Diamond Princess, told USA TODAY he was not planning to take the charter flight back to the U.S. 

"We think the way they are handling this is not safe," Smith said Saturday. "They want to take hundreds of people off the ship before the quarantine here has been completed and without them ever being tested, and they want to throw them on buses together, then a plane, then force them to serve another 14-day quarantine under unknown circumstances."

Americans who choose not to return on the charter flight will be unable to return to the U.S. for a period of time, the letter said, though it did not indicate how long that would be. 

Earlier in the week, the cruise line announced that some passengers, starting with the medically vulnerable, would be let off the ship to complete the quarantine.  The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Friday that the first group of passengers disembarked in Yokahama, Japan, to complete their 14-day quarantine period for coronavirus off the ship.

So far, 12 people have voluntarily disembarked and 55 in that group that tested negative for coronavirus stayed on board, Princess Cruises said in a release provided by spokesperson Negin Kamali. Officials are placing priority on elderly passengers with pre-existing conditions or in rooms with no balcony. All eligible passengers would have to test negative for coronavirus, the embassy said.

The Diamond Princess is thought to be the largest group of coronavirus patients outside China, where the outbreak has infected almost 66,500 people and killed nearly 1,500 as of Saturday morning.

The Princess Cruises ship was carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew when it set sail and was quarantined after an initial 10 cases of coronavirus were reported Feb. 4