More than a dozen infected Americans from a coronavirus-riddled cruise ship off Japan flew on evacuation flights to the US with other passengers on Monday, as the epidemic claimed more lives in China to take the death toll above 1,700.
The COVID-19 virus has infected more than 70,500 people in its epicentre of China and sparked panic buying, economic jitters and the cancellation of high-profile sporting and cultural events.
With fresh cases emerging daily in Japan, the government has advised citizens to avoid mass gatherings and cancelled public events, including annual celebrations in central Tokyo for the Emperor’s birthday and the amateur portion of the city marathon, affecting around 38,000 runners.
Beijing’s municipal authorities have ordered everyone arriving in the capital to self-quarantine for 14 days, the presumed incubation period of the virus. State media said China may postpone its annual parliament session, which has been held in March for the last 35 years.
Outside China, the biggest cluster of infections is from the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan’s Yokohama, where an additional 99 cases were revealed on Monday.
That brought the total to 454 diagnosed despite passengers being confined to their cabins during a 14-day quarantine.
As criticism grows of Japan’s handling of the ship crisis, governments are scrambling to repatriate their citizens, with Canada, Australia, Italy, and Hong Kong poised to follow Washington in removing nationals from the vessel.
Early Monday more than 300 passengers were transferred onto coaches via makeshift passport control and loaded onto two planes.
The first flight touched down at Travis Air Force Base in California shortly before midnight Sunday, with the second landing early Monday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
Before they boarded the flights, US officials were informed 14 of them tested days earlier had received positive results. Authorities allowed them to fly but isolated them from other passengers in a “special containment area”.
Those on board were expected to undergo a further 14-day quarantine period on US soil.
“I am happy and ready to go,” Sarah Arana told AFP before leaving the ship. “We need a proper quarantine. This was not it.”
Australia became the latest country to order its citizens evacuated from the ship, with more than 200 citizens still on board due to be rescued on Wednesday.
Forty other US passengers tested positive for the virus and were taken to hospitals in Japan, said Anthony Fauci, a senior official at the National Institutes for Health.
It was not immediately clear if they were already counted among the 355 confirmed cases on the ship.
In China, authorities have placed about 56 million people in Hubei under quarantine, virtually sealing off the province from the rest of the country in an unprecedented effort to contain the virus.
New cases outside the epicentre have been declining for the last 13 days. There were 115 fresh cases outside the central province announced Monday, sharply down from nearly 450 a week ago.
Chinese authorities have pointed to the slowing rise in cases as proof their measures are working, even as the death toll climbed to 1,770 with more than 11,000 recovering.
But World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned it is “impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take”.