A passenger talks on a mobile phone on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored at a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. The cruise ship started letting passengers who tested negative for the virus leave the ship Wednesday. Test results are still pending for some people on board. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

2 former cruise ship passengers with virus die in Japan

February 20, 2020 - 2:32 am

TOKYO (AP) — Two elderly passengers taken off the Diamond Princess cruise ship because they were infected with a new virus have died, Japan's Health Ministry said Thursday, becoming the first fatalities from the virus-stricken vessel.

Japan now has three deaths linked to the COVID-19 illness.

Japan's NHK public television said both were Japanese in their 80s. A Health Ministry official only confirmed that they had been previously hospitalized in serious condition and had existing chronic diseases. The official spoke to The Associated Press anonymously, citing office protocol.

The new virus began in China late last year and has sickened tens of thousands of people, mostly in central China's Hubei province. The 621 cases confirmed among the Diamond Princess's original 3,711 people on board are the most anywhere outside China. In all, Japan has more than 700 confirmed cases, including the country's first death unrelated to the ship.

The Diamond Princess, docked in Yokohama port near Tokyo, started letting passengers who tested negative for the virus off the ship Wednesday, when the government-set 14-day quarantine ended. On Thursday, hundreds of other passengers were also expected to leave in a massive disembarkation process expected to last through Friday. 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 caution over lax protective measures on the ship.

Kentaro Iwata, an infectious diseases expert at Kobe University Hospital who got 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 distinction 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 in a video conference Thursday.

He said the Japanese Health Ministry-led operation implemented some measures, but “to me it was not good enough, because there were exchanges of dirty and clean.”

Iwata also said Japan should follow the example of the U.S. and other countries requiring an additional two-week quarantine for passengers they brought home from 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, Kato urged the former passengers to refrain from non-essential outings and try to stay home for about two weeks, virtually acknowledging the need for an additional 14-day quarantine.

About 440 passengers had left the ship by Wednesday evening, and Japanese officials said more than 1,000 others will be gone by Friday. 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 and causing secondary infections, are expected to stay on the ship. In a preliminary report issued Wednesday, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases said that 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 effectively reduced during the process.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said a more controlled health watch for the crew would start as the passengers get off because they can isolate themselves by spreading out and using vacated passenger rooms.

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 as well.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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