Hundreds of Americans flown home from corona-infected cruise ship as death toll hits over 1,700 in China

More than 300 Americans rescued from a cruise ship quarantined off Japan because of the new coronavirus arrived back in the US Monday to begin a further two-week period of medical seclusion, as the epidemic claimed more lives in China to push the death toll above 1,700.

The COVID-19 virus has infected more than 70,500 people in China, and hundreds more elsewhere, sparking 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 parliamentary 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. Canada, Australia, Italy, and Hong Kong were poised to follow Washington in removing nationals from the vessel.

The first US flight touched down at Travis Air Force Base in California shortly before midnight Sunday, followed by the second early Monday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

Before they boarded the flights, US officials were informed that 14 of the passengers 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 will undergo a further two-week quarantine period on US soil.

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“Every precaution to ensure proper isolation and community protection measures are being taken, driven by the most up-to-date risk assessments by US health authorities,” said a joint statement from the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. “We continue all possible efforts to protect the welfare of U.S. citizens.”

“I am happy and ready to go,” American traveller Sarah Arana told AFP before leaving the ship. “We need a proper quarantine. This was not it.”

The latest country to order its citizens evacuated from the ship is Australia, whose more than 200 citizens still on board were to be rescued on Wednesday.

Some Americans on the Diamond Princess declined their government’s offer.

“My health is fine. And my two-week quarantine is almost over,” tweeted Matt Smith, questioning why he should want to leave.

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 confirmed cases of infection on the ship.

In China, authorities have placed about 56 million people in the central province of Hubei under quarantine, virtually sealing off the epicentre 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 Hubei 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 total death toll reached 1,770.

But World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned it is “impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take”.

Concerns remain about global transmission, especially on cruise ships which appear to have become especially virulent breeding grounds.

Fears are mounting over passengers on one vessel, the Westerdam, who all received a clean bill of health when they disembarked in Cambodia – a staunch Beijing ally.

But an 83-year-old American woman was stopped by authorities in Malaysia over the weekend when she was detected with a fever and later diagnosed with the virus.

There were more than 2,200 passengers and crew on the ship when it docked in Sihanoukville, many of whom have now dispersed around the globe.

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