Amid growing international criticism that isolating several thousand people on a cruise ship was perhaps the worst way possible to stop a virus from spreading, Japan’s health minister Katsunobu Kato has said that the country would allow some elderly passengers on the Diamond Princess (IMO 9228198)to disembark ahead of the scheduled February 19th disembarkation date. A further 44 new cases have been confirmed aboard the Diamond Princess, leading to concerns that, despite efforts to isolate passengers, somehow the virus is still spreading on the ship.
Brandon Brown, an expert in international health at the University of California, Riverside, told Reuters that Japan’s initial decision to keep passengers and crew on board seemed “a wise first step”. Another option would have been to take everyone off the ship, isolate those with symptoms and quarantine the rest in a place with more space and less interaction. However, he said that, with 4,000 people, this would have been a difficult task. Brown said that recycled air on the ship 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. Others have wondered whether interaction between passengers and crew, for example through the delivery of meals, could be a factor in the continuing appearance of fresh infections.
Kato said that elderly passengers who had pre-existing conditions or were staying in windowless rooms would be allowed to leave, starting from Friday February 14th, and could complete their quarantine ashore.
The number of those infected on the cruise ship has risen to 218, although the majority of passengers have not yet been tested. One quarantine officer has also tested positive. The liner was quarantined on arrival in Yokohama, near Tokyo, on February 3rd after a man who disembarked from the liner in Hong Kong before it travelled to Japan was diagnosed with the virus. However, it has become clear that one man could not have infected all of those who have since tested positive.
About 80% of the ship passengers were aged 60 or over, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s.
“We will make every effort to ensure the safety and peace of mind of the people,” Kato told 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.
However, he insisted that those who had been in close contact with persons who tested positive would not be allowed to leave the ship.
2004-built, UK-flagged, 115,906 gt Diamond Princess is owned by Fairline Shipping International Corp care of manager Princess Cruise Lines of Valencia, California. It is entered with UK Club and Steamship Mutual.