U.S. officials said early Monday that 14 American passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan had tested positive for the new coronavirus, but were allowed on flights to military bases in California and Texas.
The State Department chartered the flights to transport more than 300 U.S. citizens from the ship, which had been docked off Yokohama since Feb. 3. The passengers landed Monday at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, although some will continue on to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. All will face a 14-day quarantine on the bases.
The 14 infected passengers had been tested two to three days before the evacuation but officials received notice of the positive results after they had left the ship for the airport, the U.S. Departments of State and Health and Human Services said in a joint statement.
The passengers did not display symptoms, the statement added. They were isolated in a specialized containment area on the aircraft. All passengers were to be closely monitored by medical personnel during the flights and moved to the containment area if they showed symptoms, officials said.
Those who stay at Travis Air Force Base will be housed separately from the 234 people already quarantined there after arriving on previous evacuation flights that landed Feb. 5 and Feb. 7, officials said.
The Diamond Princess set sail Jan. 20 and was placed under quarantine by Japanese officials on Feb. 5 after a passenger who departed the cruise ship in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We understand this is frustrating and an adjustment, but these measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in a letter sent to cruise ship passengers Saturday.
So far, no positive coronavirus results have been reported among those quarantined earlier at Travis; one case has been reported among those quarantined at Lackland. The virus has killed more than 1,800 people and infected more than 73,000 since it was discovered in Wuhan, China, in late December.
Travis is one of three military bases in California that the Defense Department has designated as a site to house returning coronavirus evacuees. The others are Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego County, where 232 people are currently quarantined, and March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. About 195 people were permitted to leave from there on Tuesday after completing a 14-day quarantine.
The move to transport the American cruise ship passengers came as the number of coronavirus cases aboard the Diamond Princess continued to grow over the weekend, with 67 new diagnoses on Saturday, and the U.S. government issued a recommendation that all American passengers and crew members leave.
“We are deeply grateful to the cruise line and government of Japan for working diligently to contain and control the spread of the illness,” the letter from the U.S. Embassy said. “However, to fulfill our government’s responsibilities to U.S. citizens under our rules and practices, as well as to reduce the burden on the Japanese healthcare system, the U.S. government recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring.”
The 3,700 passengers and crew members aboard the Diamond Princess include two Santa Clarita residents, Carl Goldman and his wife, Jeri Seratti Goldman. The couple own the radio station KHTS and have been documenting their experiences in a diary on the station’s website.
Many of the posts have been lighthearted, but on Saturday, Carl Goldman wrote that one of their traveling companions had been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.
“It’s a sad day aboard the Diamond Princess,” he wrote. “No joking today.”
The woman, Jerri Jorgenson, and her husband, Mark, were confined to the cabin adjoining the Goldmans’, and the two couples had unlocked a partition separating their balconies so they could move freely back and forth between the units during the quarantine, Carl Goldman wrote.
“Last night, after watching a movie, all four of us took our temperatures. Jerri had a fever,” he wrote. “In the morning, she still had a fever. As Mark and Jerri were getting ready to call the ship’s hospital, Japanese health officials knocked on their door. They were dressed in hazmat suits.”
He said that they handed Mark Jorgenson a letter saying that his wife had tested positive for the virus and said she had one hour to pack a small bag. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital about four hours away in Fukushima, where her husband was not permitted to join her, Goldman wrote.
Goldman, his wife and Mark Jorgenson were planning to fly back to the U.S. on one of the evacuation flights and undergo a second quarantine at one of the military bases, Goldman wrote.
“We are unclear what tomorrow will bring,” he wrote. “We are shaken and devastated that we have been removed from our friend.”
Health officials say that the COVID-19 virus continues to pose a low risk to the general American public. Just 15 cases had been diagnosed in the U.S.: eight in California, two in Illinois, and one each in Arizona, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. All of the patients had either recently traveled to mainland China or, in two cases, had close contact with someone who did. At least three of the cases were among people who had recently arrived on an evacuation flight from Wuhan.