Two elderly passengers taken off the Diamond Princess cruise ship because they were infected with the new coronavirus have died, Japan’s Health Ministry said Thursday. They were the first fatalities from the virus-stricken vessel.
Japan now has three deaths linked to the COVID-19 illness.
The ministry also announced 13 more cases on the ship, bringing the total to 634, by far the largest number in one location outside mainland China.
The two fatalities, a man and woman in their 80s, both Japanese, were believed to have been infected before health checks and a Feb. 5 quarantine began on the ship, Health Ministry official Masami Sakoi said. It was not immediately known if they had any roommates on the ship.
They had been hospitalized Feb. 11 and 12, and each tested positive a day later. It was not immediately known why they were not tested earlier, when they developed initial symptoms and consulted with the ship’s clinic, Sakoi said.
The ministry also announced Thursday that two more government officials had become infected while providing clerical work on the ship to help in the quarantine effort.
Four other officials — a quarantine official, a paramedic who carried an infected passenger, a Health Ministry worker and an emergency relief medical expert — also have been sickened.
The new virus that began in China late last year has sickened tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China’s Hubei province. With the 634 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess’ original 3,711 people, Japan has more than 700 cases, including the country’s first death, which was unrelated to the ship.
The Diamond Princess, docked at Yokohama, near Tokyo, started letting passengers who tested negative for the virus leave the ship Wednesday. Test results are still pending for some people on board.
Japan’s government has been questioned over its decision to keep people on the ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator. Some medical experts who observed the quarantine process on board also raised concerns over what they said were lax protective measures.
Kentaro Iwata, an infectious diseases expert at Kobe University Hospital who was on the ship as part of a medical relief team earlier this week, said in a YouTube video that he was alarmed by the lack of control measures, including distinctions between clean and contaminated zones, and the inadequate use of protective gear. He called it “chaotic” and said it made him scared of getting infected himself.
Iwata, currently in self-imposed quarantine at a hotel, blamed poor management of the quarantine in a video conference Thursday.
He said the Health Ministry-led operation implemented some measures, but “to me it was not good enough.”
Iwata also said Japan should follow the example of the U.S. and other countries in requiring an additional two-week quarantine for passengers after they leave the ship.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato initially said those with negative virus tests had fulfilled the Japanese quarantine requirement and were free to walk out and go home on public transportation. Later Wednesday, he urged the former passengers to refrain from nonessential outings and to try to stay home for about two weeks.
“COVID-19 is not 100% known, and a lot of people got infected on the Diamond Princess,” he said. “Taking those factors into consideration, we believe taking extra caution will contribute to preventing the risk of future infections.”
About 500 passengers had left the ship by Wednesday evening, and Japanese officials were to spend the next three days disembarking about 2,000 others. The Diamond Princess was quarantined after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Crew members, who couldn’t be confined to their rooms because they were working, are expected to stay on the ship. In a preliminary report issued Wednesday, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases said the substantial transmission of the virus occurred before the Feb. 5 implementation of the quarantine and that a downtrend in the number of confirmed cases based on reported onset dates indicated secondary transmission among passengers was reduced during the process.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said a more controlled health watch for the crew would start immediately because they could isolate themselves by spreading out and using vacated passenger rooms. Some foreign crew members, however, are expected to return home on chartered flights sent from their home countries. Four South Korean crew members returned home with three passengers on Wednesday on a government-chartered flight.
Before the quarantine on the ship had ended, the United States evacuated more than 300 Americans and put them in quarantine in the U.S. for another 14 days. South Korea, Australia and Hong Kong evacuated their residents for quarantines as well, and Canada and Italy sent flights for their citizens.