"This Ship Is Out Of Control" - NYT Exposes Japan's "Disastrous" Missteps In Botched "Diamond Princess" Quarantine

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by Tyler Durden
Saturday, Feb 22, 2020 - 01:55 PM

Days after the CDC publicly questioned Japan's handling of the 'Diamond Princess' quarantine, claiming that health officials failed to maintain the quarantine and also failed to keep passengers and crew safe from the virus. Now, it looks like even the Japanese are admitting that the US had a point.

All of this is coming after a chilling New York Times investigation that detailed Japan's lax response after being informed that a passenger who had disembarked tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong.

The reporter who wrote the story was the NYT's Motoko Rich. Rich has closely covered the situation aboard the Diamond Princess, even communicating with trapped passengers and publishing their complaints and stories for an earlier piece,  Japanese health officials neglected to test every single one of the nearly 3,000 passengers and 1,000+ crew members. Shortly after the NYT report dropped, Japanese officials publicly acknowledged the overnight.

According to Bloomberg, Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a press conference on Saturday that 23 passengers who disembarked from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama were never tested for the coronavirus during the quarantine period.

Given the infection rate so far going by only confirmed cases, it's extremely likely that one of these individuals carried the virus with them after the quarantine ended. While many governments imposed quarantines for returning passengers - the US is one example - it's not clear what's being done to track and monitor these passengers.

The comment came "amid increasing skepticism" about Japan's handling of the crisis, something highlighted by the fact that foreigner governments opted to evacuate their citizens rather than leave them to languish in the petri dish of disease. However, the US and most other nations refused to take citizens who had been confirmed to harbor the virus, leaving them to be cared for either on the ship or in a Japanese hospital.

Rich's story starts out tame enough: Thousands of honeymooners, retirees and others were traveling, enjoying their vacation with overflowing buffets, night clubs and events. Then, the ship got word from Japanese officials that a passenger had tested positive.

The initial reaction was mild. Passengers and crew were still allowed to do more or less what they wanted. The buffets continued, events went on as scheduled, and the nightclubs were open.

It wasn't until three days later, as the ship was approaching Yokohama, that health officials demanded that a quarantine be instituted immediately.

Many guests first learned that they would spent the next 14 days in their cabins while they were on their way to the breakfast buffet, which was incidentally cancelled.

Passengers figured their departure would be delayed by only a day or so. Many were walking up to breakfast when the captain came over the intercom again on the morning of Feb. 5.

The Japanese health ministry had now confirmed 10 cases of the coronavirus on the ship, he told them.

Guests needed to return to their rooms immediately, where they would have to stay, isolated, for the next 14 days.

The rest of what Rich describes is a slow descent into horror. Overwhelmed staff and public health authorities working overtime to test everyone and attend to those showing symptoms. Some passengers were allowed brief trips outside if their rooms were windowless.

The crew continued to serve meals, and quarantine rules were routinely violated, increasing the risk of exposure.

While many patients were moved to hospitals, some of the younger infected patients deemed low-risk were essentially left to fight the virus on their own.

At one point, someone came to the door with a clipboard, he said, asked for his temperature and left. Inside the cabin he shared with his wife, Mr. Haering, 63, sweated it out, taking cold showers and swallowing the last of their Tylenol supply as his temperature climbed to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Four days later, after his fever had broken, officials in hazmat suits showed up at the couple’s door, ordered Mr. Haering to pack a bag, and loaded him into an ambulance, leaving his wife on the ship.

Fearing for his life, one elderly passenger wrote a handwritten note to the Japanese Ministry of Health complaining about the "out of control" situation aboard the ship.

Tadashi Chida, a passenger in his 70s, sent a handwritten letter to Japan’s health ministry complaining that the crew seemed overwhelmed and that quarantine officers were not attending to those with symptoms.

"The ship is out of control," Mr. Chida said, adding that his wife had waited nearly a week for medication.

"An outbreak is happening," he said. “We have no road maps.”

Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said this past week that the country’s authorities had "made the maximum consideration to secure the health of passengers and crew."

The story also appears to confirm reports that the CDC opposed the decision to bring the 14 infected Americans on the flight. One evacuee told the Times about standing next to a woman as she was being told she had tested positive for the virus.

In that moment, the man said, he felt like he had just wasted two weeks of effort trying to avoid exposure.

Officials from the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services ultimately decided to take them all. They put the infected at the back, separating them on two planes with only 10-foot plastic sheeting and tape.

As the passengers boarded, Ms. Courter was standing next to a woman as she was being told she had tested positive. “We were less than three feet away,” Ms. Courter said. "And I remember thinking, 'I just spent two weeks to avoid anyone who is positive, and now here is one breathing right in front of me.'"

Even more stunning: Even as the State Department told the public that the evacuees would be shielded from the infected, the NYT reveals that the 14 positive patients were simply placed in the back of the planes, separated from everyone else by "10-foot plastic sheeting and tape."

A week and a half later, American officials reversed their position. The U.S. government announced that it was evacuating them before the end of the quarantine and would confine them for an additional 14 days on bases in California and Texas. A letter to American passengers said that “the Department of Health and Human Services made an assessment that passengers and crew members onboard are at high risk of exposure.”

The evacuation turned problematic. While the 328 passengers and crew members were on their way to the airport in Tokyo, American officials learned from Japanese health authorities that 14 of them had tested positive for the coronavirus.

They waited for hours on the tarmac as C.D.C. experts debated with officials from the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services about what to do. It took so long that some passengers had to get off and urinate against the side of the buses.

Officials from the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services ultimately decided to take them all. They put the infected at the back, separating them on two planes with only 10-foot plastic sheeting and tape.

Unsurprisingly, members of the crew were treated essentially as disposable, with little consideration for their safety. They worked grueling 13-hour shifts as new duties like preparing individual meals and guarding corridors of rooms suddenly became priorities. They did the best they could to keep morale high. Some described being forced to sleep in crowded rooms with other crew members who were exhibiting symptoms of the virus.

Ultimately, more than 80 were infected, nearly one in ten crew members.

Japan has defended its actions, arguing that there is no precedent for a situation where thousands of people are basically trapped in a petri dish of disease. Still, there's now no doubt that officials should have reacted more quickly. If they had, dozens, maybe hundreds, of infections could have been avoided.