About 500 passengers left the cruise ship Diamond Princess on Wednesday at the end of a much-criticized two-week quarantine aboard the vessel, docked in Japan, that failed to stop the spread of the new virus among passengers and crew.
The quarantine’s flop was underlined as authorities announced 79 more cases, bringing the total on the ship to 621. Results were still pending for some other passengers and crew among the original 3,711 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. The Diamond Princess is the site of the most infections outside of China, where the illness named COVID-19 emerged late last year.
Many foreign governments say they won’t let passengers from the ship return unless they go through another quarantine period, so it was striking to see passengers disembark, get into taxis and disappear into Yokohama, where the ship is docked.
Japanese soldiers helped escort some passengers, including an elderly man in a wheelchair who wore a mask and held a cane. Some passengers got on buses to be transported to train stations. Some people still in their cabins waved farewell from their balconies to those who had already been processed.
“I’m a bit concerned if I’m OK to get off the ship, but it was getting very difficult physically,” a 77-year-old man from Saitama, near Tokyo, who got off with his wife, told Kyodo News. “For now, we just want to celebrate.”
Those disembarking with negative virus tests have fulfilled the Japanese quarantine requirement and are free to walk out and go home on public transportation, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said Wednesday.
He said the plan was approved by experts at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. Passengers are only asked to watch their health carefully for a few days and notify local health authorities if they have any symptoms or worries, he said.
Some passengers said on Twitter they received health forms asking if they had symptoms such as a headache, fever or coughing. Passengers who tested negative and had no symptoms still had to get their body temperature checked before leaving.
About 500 passengers who planned to leave on Wednesday had all left the ship by evening, and Japanese officials are to spend the next three days conducting the disembarkation of about 2,000 others. The Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama near Tokyo after one passenger who left the ship earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Even though Japanese officials insist the number of infected patients is levelling off, cases on the ship continue to mount daily. On Tuesday, 88 people tested positive; a day after 99 others were found to be infected.
Crew members, who couldn’t be confined to their rooms because they were working, are expected to stay on the ship.