Japan government panel says cruise ship was not designed to be a hospital

Japanese health officials and a government panel acknowledged this week that the quarantine of cruise ship Diamond Princess was not perfect, but they defended the decision to release about 1,000 passengers after 14 days.

The officials said that Japanese health authorities faced unique problems in dealing with a foreign-operated ship that required international negotiations.

Shigeru Omi, a former regional director for the World Health Organization and head of the Japan Community Health Care Organization, said that  “the ship was not designed to be a hospital. The ship was a ship. Of course isolation was not ideal as would be expected from a hospital, so in my view, although the isolation was somehow effective, to a large extent it was not perfect.”

Omi noted that there were no established rules for such a crisis.

More than 690 people became infected on the ship and four have died. Several others have tested as positive for the virus since being allowed to leave the vessel.

A quarantine official and a government employee who helped on the ship also tested positive and were hospitalized, bringing the number of confirmed infections among government officials to six.

Omi said that it was not feasible to test and relocate all of them for quarantine elsewhere.

Japanese passengers who did not share a room with patients, tested negative and had no symptoms at the end of the 14-day quarantine period were allowed to go home on public transportation. The sight of them travelling on bullet trains and buses with other people was viewed by many as an alarming sign of a Japanese lack of a sense of crisis.

In Japan, a former passenger in her 60s who tested negative days before getting off the ship then tested positive after taking a train home.

Most other countries have imposed a further 14-day quarantine period on passengers and crew from the ship. At least 18 American and several Australian former passengers have tested positive after returning home.

Omi defended the decision, saying that as a matter of principle the passengers who passed the criteria should be treated as anyone else, and those who frequent public places in the community should be deemed equally at risk.

By Wednesday Japan had approaching 200 cases outside the ship. The 12-member experts panel raised concern about the growing number of cases whose timing, location and source of transmission were unknown.