The announcement was a shift from previous U.S. statements that the passengers were best serving out their quarantine on board the ship, and that passengers would not have to serve out an additional quarantine period on their return home.
The Japanese government also announced that another 67 people on board the cruise ship were found to have the new coronavirus, out of the latest batch of 217 who were tested, although more than half showed no symptoms. That brings to 285 the numbers of passengers and crew who have been found to be infected out of 930 tested, more than 30 percent.
Sells, who is self-employed, said her enforced absence would be “devastating” for her business. She believes people testing positive for the virus probably contracted it before the quarantine period began, but says the U.S. government should have sent experts to assess whether the quarantine on board the ship was effective or not, right from the start.
“They should have done this on the very first day,” she said, close to tears. “And now 400 American citizens are going to suffer because of their incompetence.”
Sells doesn’t even know if her husband, a Canadian citizen who owns a small business in the United States, will be able to travel with her.
“That’s basically a month of our lives we are being held captive,” she added. “And without just cause — we didn’t commit a crime.”
New cases on the ship
The cruise ship, with 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew, was placed in 14-days quarantine on Feb. 5, a process that was due to end on Feb. 19, at which passengers had expected to be able to return home. But as more tests were carried out on passengers and crew, it became obvious that a high percentage had the virus, and experts warned there was a risk it could still be spreading on board the ship.
In acknowledgment of those risks, Japan changed course this week and began evacuating some passengers before the quarantine period ended, beginning with people over 80 years old and with underlying health problems. It also stepped up its program of testing passengers.
After initially backing Japan’s approach toward the ship, the U.S. government has now also implicitly acknowledged that the Diamond Princess may not have been the best place to keep its citizens.
“We are deeply grateful to the cruise line and government of Japan for working diligently to contain and control the spread of the illness,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo wrote in an email to Americans on board the ship.
“However, to fulfill our government’s responsibilities to U.S. citizens under our rules and practices, as well as to reduce the burden on the Japanese health care system, the U.S. government recommends, out of an abundance of caution, that U.S. citizens disembark and return to the United States for further monitoring.”
It was a decision that some passengers said should have been taken much earlier.
“Why didn’t they test everybody [earlier] and it would have been over?” asked Melanie Haering, 58, from Tooele in Utah, echoing a question many people have asked right from the beginning.
Medical experts have expressed concerns the virus could still be spreading on board the ship, possibly through the crew, or even perhaps through the air conditioning system — although the captain has repeatedly assured passengers the air in their cabins is fresh rather than recycled. More than 20 crew members have tested positive for the virus.
The email said the State Department, working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies, will provide a chartered aircraft to passengers directly from Japan to the Travis Air Force Base in California, and for some passengers on to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
The aircraft will arrive in Japan on Sunday evening. Passengers will be screened for symptoms and then taken by bus to the aircraft. “We are working with our Japanese partners to ensure that any symptomatic passengers receive the required care in Japan if they cannot board the flight,” the embassy said.
“Travelers returning to the United States from high-risk areas are required to undergo quarantine. Accordingly, you will need to undergo further quarantine of 14 days when you arrive in the United States,” the email said.
“We understand this is frustrating and an adjustment, but these measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease.”
Passengers who choose not to return on this flight will be unable to return to the United States “for a period of time,” the embassy wrote.
Several passengers said they acknowledged that the additional quarantine period was the wisest course of action but still found the news tough to process.
“Having hoped that three, four days from now, I’d be getting on a plane and this would be all behind me, now facing another 14 day quarantine on a military institution where the conditions — I imagine they’re obviously going to be more sanitary, but they’re going to be vastly different — it is frightening,” said Spencer Fehrenbacher, 29, a U.S. citizen whose family immigrated to Canada in 2016.