Health professionals have criticised the decision to quarantine the Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers and crew as Japan announces the country’s first death from coronavirus.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato on Friday morning (Australian time) confirmed a woman in her 80s, who had been hospitalised since February 1, had died from the virus.
The death is just the third outside mainland China, after a 44-year-old man in the Philippines and another death in Hong Kong. There are now more than 60,300 coronavirus cases and 1370 deaths worldwide.
News of the Japanese death came just hours after 44 fresh cases were confirmed on the Diamond Princess quarantined near Tokyo, 11 of them Australians.
The cruise ship is the source of the largest cluster of cases outside of China, with 218 victims.
The remaining passengers and crew of the original 3700 onboard are awaiting test results.
Late Thursday night, the operator of the Diamond Princess said Japanese health officials were planning “a voluntary disembarkation of guests to complete their quarantine period at a shoreside facility”.
The wait for many passengers could be long, with the release from their shipboard confinement expected to be “phased”. Vulnerable passengers – the aged and unwell – will be given priority.
US public health scientist and epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding has slammed the quarantine decision, describing the Diamond Princess as a “live petri dish”.
TIME TO ABANDON 🦠 SHIP. The Princess Diamond with 136 cases (largest cluster outside 🇨🇳) has become a live Petri dish. In fact, 10 crew also infected, crew also bunk together, +prepare food/serve others. Must evacuate🛳 ASAP. C’mon @WHO + Japan! https://t.co/tY5Xf8qbAS
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) February 11, 2020
Meanwhile, one Japanese national, Daxa, who is stuck in a room without a balcony, told The New Daily that passengers were increasingly concerned about the virus – now dubbed COVID-19 – spreading further.
“People are worried. They are upset,” he said.
“No passengers can leave the room, until February 19. [There] may be an extension.”
Adding to the growing stress is the fact passengers were slow to find out about the new cases, he said.
“Reports of infected individuals were very slow. I am dissatisfied with it. The captain’s report was slow. Hours later than Japanese news.”
It was becoming increasingly obvious passengers should have been quarantined off the ship, University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay said.
“Given all the things we don’t know about how well it spreads, it would have been wiser to take them and put them into quarantine and isolation onshore,” Associate Professor Mackay said.
“Put the people who are positive together and the people who are negative together and watch them for 14 days. But take them off the ship so they wouldn’t be bored.
“There are mental health issues, especially in cabins without windows. There are issues with bedding that isn’t getting changed. It’s not a fun place.
“Quarantine and isolation are old principles. We know they work, but they have to be done with a human approach.
“The transmission has clearly not been stopped. It’s time to come off the boat and get into purpose-built facilities. Out of the petri dish.”
Myths about the virus are circulating quicker than it does.
A big one is that it travels through the air – and potentially air ducts.
“There is no evidence it is spread through the air. It is not how the virus spreads. It spreads through droplets,” Professor Mackay said.
“It just doesn’t go through pipes or weave its way through complicated air ducts. That [idea] is getting out there.”
Life on the quarantined Diamond Princess is far from luxurious.
Passengers are confined to their rooms at all times, and the boredom is broken only by meal deliveries and, for those in windowless rooms, a quick walk on the deck every few days.
There are strict instructions to stay two metres apart at all times and everyone has been given a thermometer and must report if their temperature hits over 37.5 degrees.
Most aboard have six more days of quarantine to go.
In the morning, loudspeakers announce the day’s TV ‘entertainment’. It includes quiz shows, magic tricks, fitness instructions and, on Wednesday, there was a napkin-folding lesson.
The voices blaring through the speakers are robotic but reassuring.
When signing off the crew tells passengers: “Diamond Princess family, we are here. We are with you, we care, and will continue to do our best to keep you comfortable and occupied during this very unique situation.”
Water is delivered in big bottles, the newspaper comes every morning and, if you ask, you’ll get vitamins or an extra cup of coffee.
But the alcohol is running out.
“Alcohol is running low,” tweeted one American on Monday.
“We’ve (collectively) ransacked the inventory. This may be the last whiskey drink until I get off this ship.”
One Australian couple got around the dwindling stockpiles by getting their wine delivered via drone.
Jan and Dave Binskin from Sydney had their wine club organise the drop-off, which even included a filter.
While they’re now enjoying their own happy hour, the couple said it’s “Russian roulette” as to who will get infected next.
“On a serious note to all our friends, can you pound this on social media and to the Australian government,” they wrote over Facebook.
“We have 200 Aussies on our boat the Diamond Princess. Many are in inside cabins – no natural light, fresh air, only air-conditioning – and are confined to their cabins for 14 days. This is inhuman and total incarceration.
“The government has to evacuate us to a suitable site. There are also medication, mental and lack of physical exercise issues help please.”