YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) — 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 pending for some other passengers and crew among the original 3,711 people on board.
Japan’s government has been criticized for 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 COVID-19 illness 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 taken 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 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 Wednesday had all left the ship by evening, and Japanese officials will 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 in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
Even though Japanese officials insist the number of infected patients is leveling 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.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said a more controlled health watch for crew members is starting now because they can be spread out and kept in isolation by using vacated passenger rooms. He acknowledged that crew members were not in adequate quarantine until now, but said they took as many preventive measures as they could.
The ship’s operator, Princess Cruises, said in a statement Tuesday that people who tested positive recently were still on the ship as they waited for transportation to hospitals.
The safety and transport logistics for moving hundreds of people will test Japanese officials.
The United States evacuated more than 300 people over the weekend who are now in quarantine in the U.S. for another 14 days. South Korea on Wednesday brought back seven people from the cruise ship, placing the six South Koreans and one Japanese family member into quarantine.
Other foreign passengers were to be picked up by chartered flights from Canada, Australia, Italy and Hong Kong.
Suga has defended Japan’s handling of the quarantine. “In the beginning, the United States expressed gratitude for the Japanese side. And there are many Americans who chose to stay on the ship,” he said.
The U.S. government said Americans who remained on board instead of returning on chartered flights cannot return home for at least two weeks after they come ashore. Other governments picking up passengers have similar policies.
U.S. officials cited the passengers’ possible exposure to the virus onboard the Diamond Princess.
Japanese health officials say the 14-day quarantine on the ship was adequate, noting that all but one of more than 500 Japanese who earlier had been flown back from the center of the virus in China and initially tested negative were virus-free at the end of their 14-day quarantines.
The officials also defended the precautions taken on the ship. About 1,000 crew members were told to wear surgical masks, wash their hands, use disinfectant sprays and stop operations at restaurants, bars and other entertainment areas after Feb. 5, when the first group of 10 infections was reported and the start of the 14-day quarantine was announced.
Passengers were told to stay in their cabins and not walk around or contact other passengers. Those in windowless cabins could go out on the deck for about an hour each day.
The quarantine was largely for passengers, because crew members kept sharing double rooms and continued to serve guests by delivering food, letters, towels and amenities, and entering passenger cabins for cleaning. Crew members also ate in groups in a crew mess hall.