Here are the latest developments:
● Fourteen Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan tested positive for coronavirus but were still allowed to return to the United States.
● More than 300 Americans were evacuated on the two flights.
● Japan’s Health Ministry Monday reported 99 new cases from passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess, taking the total number of infections from the ship to 454.
● In China, the number of confirmed infections now exceeds 70,000, with the death toll rising to 1,770 as of Monday.
● China’s ruling Communist Party all but confirmed that it would postpone the Two Sessions, the important and highly ritualized annual political meetings that had been due to take place in early March.
BEIJING — Fourteen Americans evacuated from the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan tested positive for the illness but were allowed to board two chartered planes bound for quarantine on U.S. military bases.
Their return almost doubles the number of confirmed cases, which previously stood at 15, of the new coronavirus in the United States.
The 14 passengers tested positive for the virus after disembarking the cruise liner, which is moored off the Japanese port of Yokohama, but before boarding the planes. They were all asymptomatic so health authorities deemed them “fit to fly,” the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement Monday.
They were cordoned off from the other passengers during the flight, it said.
“These individuals were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols,” the departments said.
A total of 328 Americans were evacuated on the two flights; all are due to go into quarantine for 14 days, the maximum incubation period for the virus, at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., or Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
Flight data showed that one flight had landed at Travis late Sunday night local time, and the other in San Antonio early Monday.
Another 44 Americans from the cruise ship had previously tested positive for coronavirus and had been taken to hospitals in Japan to recover.
Japan’s Health Ministry on Monday reported 99 new cases of coronavirus among the passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess, taking the total number of infections from the ship to 454. Of those, 18 are in serious condition, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.
The Americans were evacuated as the scramble to contain the virus continued, especially in China, where the outbreak began in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, in December.
The number of confirmed infections in China now exceeds 70,000, with the death toll rising to 1,770, the overwhelming majority of both occurring in Hubei province. But China’s National Health Commission has stressed that the number of new cases outside Hubei province has been declining, as authorities impose draconian restrictions on people’s movements in an attempt to stop transmission.
Tracking down Westerdam passengers
Another cruise liner, the Westerdam, owned by Holland America Line, is at the center of a coronavirus-related investigation.
Hundreds of passengers have flown home, mostly through Thailand or Malaysia, after the ship docked in the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville and Cambodian health authorities deemed it coronavirus-free.
But an American woman has since tested positive for the virus, setting off a scramble to trace the infection.
Holland America Line said Monday that it was working closely with government and health officials in Malaysia and Cambodia, as well as experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, to try to trace people who may have been exposed to the virus.
“We are in close coordination with some of the leading health experts from around the world,” Grant Tarling, Holland America’s chief medical officer, said in a statement. “These experts are working with the appropriate national health authorities to investigate and follow-up with individuals who may have come in contact with the guest.”
An 83-year-old American woman who disembarked from the ship at Sihanoukville on Friday took a charter flight to Kuala Lumpur, along with 145 other passengers. They had all passed health checked by Cambodian authorities and cleared to disembark and travel onward.
When the woman arrived in Kuala Lumpur, she reported feeling unwell and tested positive for the virus. Malaysian authorities say she is in stable condition.
Her traveling companion tested negative and none of the other passengers or crew members reported symptoms, the company said in the statement.
The Westerdam on Monday remained in Sihanoukville, where it had docked last week after spending two weeks at sea. Authorities in Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand had turned it away after seeing what had happened with the Diamond Princess, where the number of infections had grown rapidly even while the vessel and its passengers were supposed to be quarantined.
Cambodia’s strongman prime minister, Hun Sen, who has vowed not to do anything to anger China and even wanted to visit Wuhan, said his country would take the ship, which had been deemed virus-free.
The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, visited the cruise ship while it was in port and posted photos on Twitter of him and his family with American passengers.
President Trump tweeted on Saturday: “Thank you to the beautiful country of Cambodia for accepting the @CarnivalCruise ship Westerdam into your port. The United States will remember your courtesy!”
People’s Congress set to be postponed
In Beijing, China’s ruling Communist Party signaled that it would almost certainly postpone the annual meeting of its legislature, the National People’s Congress, and the other National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Together, these meetings are known as the “Two Sessions” and have opened on March 5 every year since 1995, except for 1997 when the meetings convened on March 1.
Officials from the NPC standing committee will meet Feb. 24 to discuss postponing the meetings, the official Xinhua News Agency said Monday.
At the meetings, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang take to the stage in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square and lay out their vision for the year ahead. Some 3,000 delegates from around the country attend.
The move to delay it “underscores the gravity of the coronavirus epidemic,” according to the analysts at the NPC Observer blog. “Officially, the Council is reported to have been mainly concerned with pulling NPC delegates (over a third of whom are local officials) away from their epidemic control efforts,” the analysts said in a blog post, linking to a state media article.
Other analysts point out that it would be bad optics for the party to hold a huge meeting at a time when all public gatherings are banned, and even worse to show thousands of cadres in masks. The party’s leaders are already being criticized for their slow response to the outbreak and apparent efforts to silence those who warned about it.
Also Feb. 24, the NPC standing committee will vote on restricting the sale of, and banning the consumption of, wild animals. The coronavirus outbreak began in a food market in Wuhan where exotic animals, including snakes and hedgehogs, were on sale. The virus is thought to have mutated and jumped from the animals to humans.
Simon Denyer in Yokohama, Japan, contributed to this report.