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COVID-19 concerns grow in Japan as hundreds of cruise ship passengers finish quarantine

Coronavirus outbreak: Passengers express joy leaving quarantined Diamond Princess ship
WATCH: Passengers express joy leaving quarantined Diamond Princess ship

Hundreds of Japanese and foreign passengers were set to disembark from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship near Tokyo on Friday amid growing disquiet in Japan about whether the government is doing enough to stop the virus spreading.

The scheduled departure of more than 400 passengers from the Diamond Princess after weeks in quarantine comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a low-level travel advisory for Japan. Meanwhile some public gatherings in the country are being scrapped in a bid to contain the virus, which has killed more than 2,200 people in mainland China so far.

READ MORE: COVID-19: China reports decline in new cases as total deaths number 2,236

More than 600 travelers aboard the liner, quarantined off Yokohama since arriving on Feb. 3 with 3,700 people aboard, have been infected with the virus. Two of them – both Japanese in their 80s – died on Thursday, and some 80 people around Japan, including 25 in the capital of Tokyo, have tested positive for the virus.

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While foreign travelers leaving the ship face more quarantine at home, Japanese do not — a situation that has stoked concerns about Japan’s quarantine practices. A number of countries have flown nationals who were aboard the liner home: Two Australians tested positive for the virus after their arrival, Australian authorities said on Friday.

Canadians leave quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship
Canadians leave quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship

At a briefing on Friday, Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga defended the government’s handling of those aboard the cruise ship as appropriate. More than 1,000 passengers and crew will remain aboard after Friday’s disembarkations.

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Suga faced questions about one of the two former passengers on the ship who died, an 84-year-old woman who developed a fever on Feb. 5 but was not tested for the virus until a week later.

“The woman was removed from the ship on the 12th after the fever continued for days,” he said. “A decision was made not to wait for the test results before moving her to hospital to protect the health of those remaining on the ship.”

READ MORE: Containing the novel coronavirus — Is COVID-19 here to stay?

Many Japanese on social media expressed concern about their government’s handling of the situation.

“There are still crew testing positive on the ship, yet people are being allowed to disembark – and told it’s okay to use public transportation to get home, then told by the health ministry to avoid using public transportation after they are home,” wrote one Twitter user using the handle ‘Homo Sapiens’.

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“What the heck is this?”

COVID-19: Two former Diamond Princess cruise passengers die from virus
COVID-19: Two former Diamond Princess cruise passengers die from virus

In the United States, the CDC said in a note on its website that it had put Japan at “Watch Level 1,” the least serious of a three-level travel advisory scale. It said that while it didn’t recommend postponing or canceling trips to Japan because of the virus, travelers should take precautions including “avoiding contact with sick people” and rigorous hand-washing.

In the latest in a series of sports events to be curtailed or canceled, a women’s marathon in the central Japanese city of Nagoya set for March 8 will be limited to elite runners only, while the Nagoya City Marathon scheduled for the same day has been canceled, organizers said.

READ MORE: COVID-19: 16 U.S. evacuees from Japanese cruise ship moved to hospitals

Both the Tokyo Marathon, which will be limited to elite runners, and the Nagoya race are Olympic qualifying events for Japanese marathon runners, deepening concern about whether the Summer Games set to start on July 24 in the capital will go on as planned.

Chief cabinet secretary Suga said the government would take all steps necessary to secure the Games in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The International Olympic Committee has told us that they consider Japan’s handling of the new coronavirus outbreak to be appropriate,” he added.

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Quarantine process for coronavirus questioned aboard Diamond Princess
Quarantine process for coronavirus questioned aboard Diamond Princess