Diamond Princess passenger describes watching 'bizarre' process of U.S. coronavirus evacuation

While the U.S. begins the process of evacuating American passengers under quarantine due to coronavirus aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, a passenger who chose to remain on the ship detailed what the evacuation looks like from the inside. 

a large ship in the water: The Diamond Princess arrives back in port in Yokohama, Japan, Feb. 12 after going out to sea to produce potable water. The ship remains under quarantine until Feb. 19 after hundreds of people were diagnosed with coronavirus.

Matthew Smith, a passenger aboard the ship, previously told USA TODAY he and his wife Katherine were not planning to take the charter flight back to the United States because they believed the “way they are handling this is not safe.” On Sunday, he shared details of what the plan looked like for passengers as the evacuation began.

“(I’m) watching the ‘rescue’ with fascination,” he wrote in a series of messages to USA TODAY. “To have a front-row seat to an incident being followed world-wide is bizarre.”

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In a letter sent Sunday morning to American passengers and crew members, the U.S. Embassy in Japan announced flights would depart Yokohama to the U.S. later that day and would be the “only opportunity for eligible passengers to fly to the United States until March 4, 2020, at the earliest.” 

Smith said passengers were prompted to RSVP to the U.S. embassy to let them know if they were choosing to leave the ship. 

“The American medical personnel who stopped by our stateroom to ask us some questions seemed surprised that we were staying, but didn’t go beyond that,” said Smith, adding that personnel confirmed the couple was not on their list before advising someone through a radio that they would remain on board. 

For passengers who did opt to disembark, a “tented corridor with tables” was set up to process them through Japanese immigration. Guests are called and are currently boarding shuttles by their cruise deck, Smith said, adding “it appears the coaches will all depart together once they are filled.”

USA TODAY has reached out to Diamond Princess for more information about the evacuation.

How the U.S. plans to evacuate Americans

The U.S. State Department is coordinating with the Department of Health and Human Services along with other agencies to provide a charter aircraft to bring passengers back to the United States. 

Americans will be bused to the aircraft and will be screened for coronavirus before boarding. The flight will land first at Travis Air Force Base in California, where some passengers will stay, while others will continue on to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

All travelers returning from a “high risk area” will be required to complete a full 14-day quarantine upon their return. Americans who choose not to return on the charter flight will be unable to return to the U.S. before next month, the letter said. 

Earlier in the week, the cruise line announced that some passengers, starting with the medically vulnerable, would be let off the ship to complete the quarantine.  The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Friday that the first group of passengers disembarked in Yokahama, Japan, to complete their 14-day quarantine period for coronavirus off the ship.

a large airplane at an airport: A bus driven by a chauffeur in protective gear departs the dock occupied by the quarantined Diamond Princess. A group of passengers who are elderly or have pre-existing medical conditions were removed from the ship Friday and will finish out their quarantine on shore in Japan.

So far, 12 people have voluntarily disembarked and 55 in the group that tested negative for coronavirus stayed on board, Princess Cruises said in a release provided by spokesperson Negin Kamali. 

The Diamond Princess is thought to be the largest group of coronavirus patients outside China, where the outbreak has infected more than 69,200 people and killed 1,670 as of Sunday afternoon. 

The Princess Cruises ship was carrying 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew when it set sail and was quarantined after 10 cases of coronavirus were reported Feb. 4. 

Preliminary plans for the end of the Diamond Princess cruise ship’s quarantine came to light Saturday after the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Japan announced the U.S. will evacuate American passengers aboard the ship. 

The Princess Cruises ship has been under quarantine since the coronavirus outbreak,  and the required two-week quarantine is supposed to end Feb. 19. The company announced Sunday it would cancel additional cruises planned through April 20, “based on the prolonged quarantine period and the anticipated time to prepare the ship to return service.” 

Princess Cruises also announced Saturday an additional 67 cases of coronavirus were identified on the ship, bringing the total to at least 285 cases of coronavirus. Additionally, the cruise line announced on its website and social media that it would cancel Asia voyages on two of its ships, the Sapphire Princess and Majestic Princess.

There are about 400 American passengers on board the Diamond Princess, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Diamond Princess Update:

President Jan Swartz provided a video update to the guests and team onboard Diamond Princess as the Japanese Ministry of Health begins to share their draft plans for disembarkation. #DiamondPrincesspic.twitter.com/cASOUu4zgs

Contributing: Curtis Tate, Jayme Deerwester, USA TODAY

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