'Six days to go:' As coronavirus tears through Princess Cruise ship, Japanese officials evacuate vulnerable passengers

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Members of media gather at the Diamond Princess cruise ship, operated by Carnival Corp., docked in Yokohama, Japan, on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Toru Hanai | Bloomberg Getty Images

Japanese health officials are allowing the most vulnerable guests quarantined on the Diamond Princess docked just off of Yokohama to leave the cruise ship and complete their isolation on land, Carnival‘s Princess Cruises said Thursday.

The decision comes as the company confirmed 44 new cases of the coronavirus, aboard the cruise ship. That brings the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 from the ship to almost 220.

COVID-19 has now infected more than 60,000 people in over two dozen countries, killing over 1,300, mostly in China. There are more cases aboard the Diamond Princess than anywhere else in the world outside of China.

The 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members on the ship have been quarantined in the port of Yokohama since it arrived on Feb. 3. On Monday, Princess Cruises said the quarantine will end Feb. 19, “unless there are any unforeseen developments.”

Japanese health officials have tested at least 500 of the 3,711 aboard the ship, according to Japanese officials.

As the virus shows little sign of slowing its spread on the ship, Princess Cruises said passengers will now be allowed to disembark and complete the 14-day quarantine at onshore facilities managed by the Japanese government.

“From the information available it is our understanding that this will be a phased approach, with the most medically vulnerable guests in the first phase, including older adults with pre-existing health conditions,” the company said. Healthy guests who want to stay on board can finish out their quarantine on the ship.

Neither the company nor the Japanese Health Ministry said where the facility is located. The company said the facilities will include individual bedrooms and bathrooms. Prescription medication will be provided, Princess Cruises said. Western-style food won’t be available and the food won’t accommodate specific diets, the company said, adding that guests will instead receive Japanese bento-style boxes.

Those given the opportunity to leave the ship will be tested for COVID-19, the company said, citing Japanese health officials.

Japanese health officials confirmed the decision on their website.

Guests 80 years or older who are staying in a cabin without a balcony and those 80 years or older who have an underlying medical condition will be prioritized, according to a recording of an onboard announcement by Capt. Gennaro Arma that has been reviewed by CNBC.

“Those who test negative will be given the option of staying onboard or being disembarked and continue their quarantine on a housing facility managed by the Japanese government until the incubation period is over,” he said, according to the recording. “The quarantine on Diamond Princess will continue and the ministry will continue to conduct virus tests on those who need it and will publish the results later.”

“Everything within our power within the ship and the shore is being done to bring this trying time to an end,” Arma told passengers. “We only have six days to go.”

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