Canada is dispatching health officials to Japan to work with local authorities, but has stopped short of repatriating Canadian passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship — the epicentre of the largest coronavirus outbreak outside of China.
A Montreal couple aboard the quarantined luxury liner have launched a letter-writing campaign to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault to get them off the ship as soon as possible as the number of infections has climbed to 218 in less than two weeks.
Responding to pressure from the ship’s passengers, the Japanese government has announced that some healthy guests might soon be allowed to disembark and finish off their isolation in a special housing facility.
But that option doesn’t sit well with some passengers, including Bryan Doyle and Lucie Mauro, the Montreal couple. They would prefer to fly back to Canada immediately.
“Those with a clear bill of health (may eventually) have the option to leave the ship and go into a Japenese housing facility,” Doyle said by email.
“That may be of great interest to the Japanese (passengers). But how do you know the conditions you will be moved to?”
Apart from China — where nearly 64,000 people have fallen ill from the novel coronavirus — the second-most contagious spot on the planet appears to be aboard the Diamond Princess, an analysis of epidemiological data reveals.
Outside mainland China, authorities have reported more than 581 coronavirus infections in countries and territories around the world. However, one-third of those infections, 218, have occurred in a single location: the Diamond Princess.
What’s telling about the Diamond Princess — where 255 Canadians remain confined to their cabins — is the rapid rise in the number of infections since the Japanese government quarantined the vessel on Feb. 5.
On Feb. 6, authorities declared 20 coronavirus infections on the ship. The next day, the tally rose to 64. Three days later, it jumped to 130. By noon on Thursday in Japan, the total had surged to 218, including reportedly a Japanese health official who had boarded the ship to survey passengers and who is now in isolation, along with the more than 3,500 passengers and crew in the port of Yokohama.
The full extent of the contagion on the ship is not yet known as the Japanese government has so far tested 713 passengers and crew — about one-fifth of those on board.
As Canadian officials expressed confidence in the Japanese government and Princess Cruises to manage the quarantine, public-health experts have begun to question the effectiveness of isolating people in the semi-enclosed environment of a large ship.
“The most vulnerable people on that ship are the crew because my understanding is they’re not isolated in the same way that passengers are,” Gisele Norris, an expert on pandemics, told the New York Post.
On Thursday, Japan’s minister of health, Katsunobu Kato, declared that two groups of passengers who have tested positive — individuals over the age of 80 and those in cabins without windows — will be moved to a medical facility ashore. That’s the first sign the quarantine hasn’t proceeded as well as planned.
Japan has set Feb. 19 as the date the quarantine will be over, but some passengers are skeptical, given the number of infections keeps rising and cabin mates are not barred from each other.
Responding to those concerns, the Diamond Princess announced on Thursday “those guests who (have) tested negative will be given the option of staying onboard or being disembarked and continue their quarantine in a housing facility managed by the government until their incubation period is over.”
Despite that announcement, the Montreal couple’s friends have continued their letter-writing campaign, arguing that the Canadian passengers should be given the same treatment as Canadian evacuees from China. The Canadian government has chartered two planes to fly those evacuees to a military base in Trenton, Ont., for a 14-day quarantine.
“Why can’t anyone see how ridiculous and scary this is getting?” asked Mauro, who boarded the Diamond Princess with Doyle on Jan. 20 — long before the full threat of the coronavirus became known.
Mauro and Doyle have been in regular contact with friends and family in Montreal, keeping them apprised of the latest developments.
“Our friends are amazing,” Mauro said by email. “Many of them have already written to the (Prime Minister’s Office), tweeted (Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe) Champagne and are going to write or phone their MPs. They’ve also organized groups of their relatives and friends asking them to contact the government.”
On Wednesday, Trudeau’s press attaché referred all questions about the ship quarantine and the possible repatriation of Canadians to Global Affairs Canada. On Thursday, a Global Affairs spokesperson referred a reporter to a federal government tweet that “some Canadians aboard the Diamond Princess may be transported to a different quarantine location,” but gave few other details.
Meanwhile, Champagne told reporters that emergency response teams and consular officials are in Japan to make sure Canadians are receiving the help they need, including the ability to contact families back home.
Champagne added about 250 Canadians on another ship off the shore of Cambodia have tested negative for the coronavirus and will be returned to Canada at the cruise line’s expense.
The Canadian Press contributed to this report.