LOS ANGELES — American passengers evacuated from a cruise ship in which 355 people have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus were expected to be flown on a chartered flight to a California military base on Sunday.
The State Department chartered flights to transport U.S. citizens from the Diamond Princess, which has been docked off Yokohama since Feb. 3, to Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, officials announced Saturday. There are about 400 U.S. citizens aboard the ship, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, but it’s not yet known whether all of them have elected to return.
The flights were expected to arrive in Japan on Sunday to pick up the passengers before departing for California. Some of them will stay at Travis Air Force Base, joining the 234 people already quarantined there after arriving on previous evacuation flights that landed Feb. 5 and Feb. 7, officials said. Other passengers will continue to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, the CDC said in a news release.
The Diamond Princess set sail Jan. 20 and was placed under quarantine by Japanese officials on Feb. 5 after a passenger who departed the cruise ship in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus. That quarantine was set to continue through Feb. 19.
But cruise ship evacuees who arrive at both of the U.S. military bases will be required to undergo a second 14-day quarantine overseen by the CDC, officials said. They will be screened for symptoms before leaving the ship, before boarding the flights and upon arrival in the U.S., and will be housed separately from the people already undergoing quarantine at the bases, officials 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,” the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said in a letter sent to cruise ship passengers Saturday.
So far, no positive coronavirus results have been reported among those quarantined at Travis; one case has been reported among those quarantined at Lackland. The virus has killed more than 1,600 people and infected more than 68,000 since it was discovered in Wuhan, China, in late December.
Travis is one of three military bases in California that the Defense Department has designated as a site to house returning coronavirus evacuees. The others are Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego County, where 232 people are currently quarantined, and March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. About 195 people were permitted to leave from there on Tuesday after finishing a 14-day quarantine, but two other people who arrived later were expected to be kept there until at least Sunday.
The move to transport the American cruise ship passengers came as the number of coronavirus cases aboard the Diamond Princess continued to grow over the weekend, with 67 new diagnoses on Saturday, and the U.S. government issued a recommendation that all American passengers and crew members leave.
“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 letter from the U.S. Embassy said. “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 healthcare 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.”
The 3,700 passengers and crew members aboard the Diamond Princess include two Santa Clarita residents, Carl Goldman and his wife, Jeri Seratti-Goldman. The couple own the radio station KHTS and have been documenting their experiences in a diary on the station’s website.
Many of the posts have been lighthearted, but on Saturday, Carl Goldman wrote that one of their traveling companions had been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.
“It’s a sad day aboard the Diamond Princess,” he wrote. “No joking today.”
The woman, Jerri Jorgenson, and her husband, Mark, were confined to the cabin adjoining the Goldmans’, and the two couples had unlocked a partition separating their balconies so they could move freely back and forth between the units during the quarantine, Carl Goldman wrote.
“Last night, after watching a movie, all four of us took our temperatures. Jerri had a fever,” he wrote. “In the morning, she still had a fever. As Mark and Jerri were getting ready to call the ship’s hospital, Japanese health officials knocked on their door. They were dressed in hazmat suits.”
He said that they handed Mark Jorgenson a letter saying that his wife had tested positive for the virus and said she had one hour to pack a small bag. She was taken by ambulance to a hospital about four hours away in Fukushima, where her husband was not permitted to join her, Goldman wrote.
Goldman, his wife and Mark Jorgenson plan to fly back to the U.S. on one of the evacuation flights and undergo a second quarantine at one of the military bases, Goldman wrote.
“We are unclear what tomorrow will bring,” he wrote. “We are shaken and devastated that we have been removed from our friend.”
Health officials say that the COVID-19 virus continues to pose a low risk to the general American public. Just 15 cases have been diagnosed in the U.S.: eight in California, two in Illinois, and one each in Arizona, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. All of the patients had either recently traveled to mainland China or, in two cases, had close contact with someone who did. At least three of the cases were among people who had recently arrived on an evacuation flight from Wuhan.
—By Alex Wigglesworth
Los Angeles Times