American passengers evacuated a cruise ship that had been quarantined for more than a week in the Japanese port city of Yokohama, after hundreds of people on board fell ill with the coronavirus.
The Americans boarded two chartered flights to the United States, and the flights departed Tokyo at 7:05 a.m. Monday Japan time, according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Japan.
As the passengers prepared to leave the country, Japanese health officials said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases found on the ship, the Diamond Princess, had grown by 70, to 355.
“Can’t get off here fast enough,” Sarah Arana, 52, a medical social worker from Paso Robles, California, told reporters on Sunday.
The U.S. Embassy had recommended that its citizens stay aboard the ship during a 14-day quarantine period. But it suddenly changed course on Saturday, citing “a rapidly evolving situation” as conditions appeared to worsen.
American passengers said they were told to prepare to leave the ship at 9 p.m. local time. Their flight was scheduled to depart Haneda Airport in Tokyo at 3 a.m. on Monday. Officials said they would be taken to one of two military air bases in the United States.
But the process, taken deck by deck, went slowly. It took several hours to load all passengers on buses to take them to Haneda Airport.
On one of the buses, Gay Courter, 75, an American novelist traveling with her husband, Philip, said the passengers were mostly silent. A doctor in a yellow hazmat suit accompanied the group.
“Clearing my throat sounds like thunder,” Gay Courter wrote in an email from the bus.
All passengers were given N95 respirators — a heavy-duty mask fitted to the face that filters out 95% of smaller air particles — to wear on board the repurposed cargo planes, Courter said.
Some sections of her flight were segregated from others, with those who had tested positive but were not yet showing symptoms sitting in a tented area of the plane, she wrote from on board.
Passengers on the charters were told there would be no overhead luggage space, so all carry-ons had to fit under the seats in front of them, and shipped luggage could not exceed 70 pounds. The converted 747 cargo plane could be cold, the officials said, so passengers were advised to shower and dress warmly. They were also told to take their own food.
Rachel Torres, 24, who had been on her honeymoon with her husband, Tyler, also 24, said they were trying to clean their stateroom so as not to leave a mess for their cabin steward.
“We didn’t sleep much last night,” said Rachel Torres. In preparation for flying, she said, the two were “drinking as much water as we can to hydrate for the flight since we will be wearing masks on the plane.”
Including the cases aboard the Diamond Princess, Japan has recorded the highest number of infections from the new coronavirus outside mainland China. Worldwide, more than 68,500 people have been infected, and at least 1,669 have died, almost all in mainland China.
When the ship was placed under quarantine, more than 3,700 passengers and crew aboard were on board, including about 400 Americans. Those found to have the virus and some particularly vulnerable passengers were taken off the ship.
Only those passengers who were screened and did not show any symptoms of the illness were allowed to board the flights bound for the United States, according to a statement from the State Department.
“All travelers on these flights were screened for symptoms prior to departure and will be subject to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) screening, health observation, and monitoring requirements,” the statement said. “Only those who were asymptomatic were allowed to board the flights.”
Once in the United States, the passengers will be required to undergo a two-week quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, or Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio.
Those who did not take the charters will not be allowed to travel to the United States until March 4, two weeks after they would have otherwise been allowed to leave the ship on Wednesday, the embassy said.
Some remained hesitant. Linda Tsukamoto, 63, a retired retail manager from Marina del Rey, California, said she had signed up for an evacuation flight, but changed her mind at the last minute.
Tsukamoto stuck a Post-it note on her door reading, “I’m staying.” Three military doctors came to her door and advised her to go. Their emphatic tone, she said, was “scary,” but she was standing her ground.
“I’d rather go home first class on United Airlines than a cold, noisy military charter when the Japanese Ministry of Health releases us,” she said. “I refuse to be fearful but respect the U.S. government to help others who feel more comfortable rushing home.”
According to a letter from the Diamond Princess staff to passengers on Sunday, passengers who test negative for the virus and show no symptoms will be allowed to leave the ship on Feb. 19. The letter noted that passengers “may be subject to additional quarantine requirements by their country of destination when leaving Japan.”
After 11 days of being isolated in their windowless cabin, John and Carol Montgomery were finally preparing to board a bus to take them to the airport, where they would then fly next to hundreds of people for about nine hours.
“It feels surreal,” said Carol Montgomery, 67, a retired administrative assistant from San Clemente, California.
With at least 40 Americans from the ship having tested positive for the coronavirus during the quarantine period, some were left behind in Japan as the charter flights departed.
For some, that meant family separations. John Haering, 63, who was taken to a hospital in Chiba prefecture last week with a fever and tested positive for the virus, will have to stay while his wife, Melanie, heads home.
“She’ll be in California quarantine,” John Haering said by telephone from his hospital bed. “And I’m staying here, obviously.”
John Haering said he was angry that the U.S. government had not acted earlier.
“If they were going to fly people out, they should have flown them out in the very beginning,” he said. “That way, we wouldn’t have sat there for 12 days, all of us getting sicker. I wouldn’t have been in the hospital; I would have been in the U.S. getting the treatment that I needed, and I could have been in quarantine there.”
Tung Pi Lee, 79, was whisked away from the ship Wednesday night with a fever, leaving his wife on the ship. JoAnn LaRoche Lee, one of Lee’s daughters, said she and her siblings did not want her mother to try to stay in Japan with their father for fear she would not be allowed to come back if she did not take the charter flight.
As for their father, said Joann Lee, “We’re just kind of trusting that the State Department will be able to facilitate my dad’s return.”
The United States previously evacuated about 850 people on five charter flights from Wuhan, the city in central China where the coronavirus emerged late last year.
Canada and Hong Kong also said they would charter flights for passengers on the cruise ship, though it was not immediately clear when those flights would leave. The Philippines’ labor minister said on Sunday that the country was working to bring home more than 500 crew members.
The Australian government said it was sending an expert to Yokohama and would consider the best options for more than 200 of its citizens aboard the ship. The Israeli government said three of its citizens on the ship had been infected. They are the first confirmed Israeli cases.
About 330 Hong Kong residents are on the ship, including 260 Chinese citizens and 70 foreigners. Eleven of the Hong Kong passengers have been infected, the Hong Kong government said.
An 80-year-old man who took the Diamond Princess from Yokohama to Hong Kong in January tested positive for the coronavirus on Feb. 1, the first documented case on the ship.