The U.S. State Department is sending a charter plane to evacuate Americans aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that is in quarantine in Japan because of the spread of COVID-19, the new coronavirus that was first reported in Wuhan, China.
On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo sent a letter to U.S. citizens aboard the ship informing them of the planned extraction from Japan scheduled for Sunday night.
Once they are back in the U.S., all passengers from the cruise ship will be forced to undergo another period of quarantine at either Travis Air Force Base in California or Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
"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. 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. We appreciate your understanding and cooperation and will provide all the assistance we can to support the quarantine process."
Nearly 300 people aboard the ship have tested positive for the virus. Another 67 people aboard the ship tested positive for the coronavirus, Japan's Health Minister Katsunobu Kato announced on Saturday.
The quarantine of the cruise ship and its 3,600 passengers is set to end Wednesday. But as more cases have been identified onboard, it's unclear whether Japan's ministry of health will extend the quarantine.
If U.S. citizens wait for the ship's quarantine to end and choose not take the charter flight, the State Department said, they "will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time."
The department said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would make a final decision on when passengers would be allowed to return to the U.S. if they did not take the charter plane.
France, meanwhile, reported Europe's first death from the new virus, a Chinese tourist from Hubei province, where the disease emerged in December.
The head of the World Health Organization urged governments to step up their efforts to prepare for the virus, saying "it’s impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take.”
The U.N. health agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a gathering of international foreign and security policy leaders in Germany on Saturday that the WHO is encouraged there has not yet been widespread transmission outside China and that “the steps China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time.”
"We’re encouraged that an international team of experts is now on the ground working closely with Chinese counterparts to understand the outbreak,” Tedros told the Munich Security Conference.
But he said the agency is “concerned by the continued increase in the number of cases in China,” and by reports about the number of health workers who have been infected or died.
“We’re concerned by the lack of urgency in funding the response from the international community,” Tedros said.
“We must use the window of opportunity we have to intensify our preparedness,” he added. “China has bought the world time. We don’t know how much time.”
The 80-year-old Chinese tourist who died in France was hospitalized Jan. 25 with a lung infection, according to Health Minister Agnes Buzyn. His daughter also fell ill, but authorities said she is expected to recover.
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