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Fear of Virus Spreading Grows as Passengers Start Leaving Ships

K. Oanh Ha and Emi Nobuhiro
Fear of Virus Spreading Grows as Passengers Start Leaving Ships

(Bloomberg) -- Thousands of passengers on two cruise ships that had been held in separate ports in Asia to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus are disembarking -- only to face new hurdles on their journeys home.

Japan allowed the first 500 guests aboard the Diamond Princess liner, quarantined off Yokohama for 14 days, to leave the ship, despite worries the country hasn’t done enough to prevent the spread of disease from the vessel. The cruise ship has the most infections anywhere outside China.

In Cambodia, 781 remaining passengers from the Westerdam cruise liner tested negative for coronavirus. But now they must circumvent obstacles to get home after three nations moved to block their transit through some of Southeast Asia’s biggest airport hubs.

Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are refusing to let Westerdam guests enter or transit through the countries after an American passenger from the cruise was found to be infected. The ship had been turned away by five ports before Cambodia agreed to accept it. Hundreds of passengers from the Westerdam were already on their way home before the infection was detected.

“It’s over the top,” said V. Padmanabha Rao, an 81-year-old retired surgeon from Virginia, of the travel bans. “Makes us feel like a pariah. It’s like what lepers were made to feel.”

The plight of the thousands of passengers on the two ships, operated by units of Carnival Corp., have fanned fears of outbreaks on luxury liners and prompted a growing number of nations to block cruises from accessing their ports. Meantime, health authorities around the world are implementing plans, from quarantines to additional testing, to prevent transmission of the virus as passengers make their way home. The contagion has killed more than 2,000.

In Cambodia, Rao said he and other passengers began to disembark Wednesday afternoon and were ushered onto buses, but they weren’t told where they were headed or given details of how they will get home.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Westerdam passengers will fly to Dubai, Japan and another Southeast Asian destination to catch flights home, local news outlet Agence Kampuchea Presse reported. Cruise operator Holland America Line said it’s working to complete arrangements.

Two Thai nationals from the ship have agreed to self-quarantine, while two fellow travelers transiting through the airport are being held for monitoring for two weeks, even though they all tested negative for the virus, according to Thai authorities.

Transmission Risk

In Yokohama, a slow and steady stream of people clutching travel bags walked off the ship. Many waved to surgical mask-wearing passengers perched on ship balconies, video images on Japanese television showed. Some were taken to public transportation hubs in Yokohama, told to keep a close eye on their health and get in touch with authorities if they get sick.

While this may mean a return to normal life for many of those disembarking, hundreds of foreigners will be subject to another 14 days of quarantine once they return home, including 200 people Australia plans to fly out on a chartered plane. Hong Kong said a charter flight is also being arranged for as many as 330 of its residents, who will return home to a two-week stay at a quarantine center. A charter flight from Canada was due on Friday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said risks remain and Japan’s measures “may not have been sufficient to prevent transmission among individuals on the ship.” It imposed travel restrictions on the passengers and crew on the vessel, adding “there may be additional confirmed cases of Covid-19 among the remaining passengers on board the Diamond Princess.”

Of the 3,700 passengers and crew on the vessel when it went into quarantine two weeks ago, 542 people were confirmed to have contracted the virus as of Tuesday.

Aboard the Diamond Princess, guests were trading messages on private group chats about the testing process and were worried that not everyone was tested this week before they were cleared to leave.

Kent Frasure, a 42-year-old passenger, said he was last tested for coronavirus on Feb. 8 as authorities evacuated his wife after she became infected. “My fear is that one or more passengers have the virus undetected and that will come out in the next few days or week from now and they’ll want to re-quarantine all of us,” he said. “It may become a never-ending saga.”

Global Worry

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga defended his country’s response, telling reporters Wednesday that Japan did all that was possible to protect the health of those aboard the cruise. He refrained from commenting on the restrictions put in place in other countries.

With people aboard hailing from more than 50 nations, the end of the quarantine raises concern the vessel could spawn a fresh wave of global infections. The number of people with the virus worldwide rose above 75,000, with the vast majority in China.

“It’s entirely possible to get tested, be negative and get on an airplane and be positive once you land,” said Keiji Fukuda, the director of the School of Public Health at Hong Kong University and a former World Health Organization official who has led responses to outbreaks. “That’s just how infections work.”

Even though people test negative or are not symptomatic, it’s safest to assume some could be infected, he said, adding it’s prudent for countries to quarantine passengers.

The risks became apparent after the U.S. evacuated more than 300 of its nationals over the weekend and received notice during the process that 14 passengers, who had been tested a few days earlier, had contracted the virus.

Those who have tested positive on the ship have been taken to area hospitals, while people who tested negative but were in a room with someone infected are set for more checks and perhaps another two weeks of quarantine at a medical facility.

A specialist on infectious diseases on Japan’s expert panel for virus measures said Tokyo’s decision to start letting people off the ship was reasonable.

“We have to decide certain criteria. If we try to have zero risk, people have to be under quarantine for 40-50 days,” Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor of virology at Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine, told reporters. When there are already infection clusters, it’s impossible to eliminate the risk entirely, he said.

For Rebecca Frasure, news of the passengers’ release brought more uncertainty. She was evacuated from the ship, separated from her husband and taken to a Tokyo hospital when she became infected. She’s been told she will need two negative tests for coronavirus before she’s discharged--but the U.S. CDC is not allowing passengers from the ship to enter the U.S. for another 14 days. She’s not sure what awaits her when she finally makes it home.

“I’m concerned about the stigma and whether I’ll be able to interact freely with people,” said Frasure. “I live in a small town. Even going to the gym--they’ll be afraid to go near me.”

--With assistance from Shoko Oda, Virginia Lau, Isabel Reynolds, Shiho Takezawa, Natnicha Chuwiruch and Philip J. Heijmans.

To contact the reporters on this story: K. Oanh Ha in Hong Kong at oha3@bloomberg.net;Emi Nobuhiro in Tokyo at enobuhiro@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Frank Connelly, Marthe Fourcade

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