Two passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship currently docked in Yokohama, Japan have died from COVID-19, according to Japan’s public broadcaster NHK. They’re the first passengers from the cruise ship to die since it was put under quarantine on February 5, raising Japan’s death toll from the new coronavirus to three.
The news comes as both South Korea and Iran reported their first deaths from the coronavirus outbreak, bringing the number of countries with the virus to at least 29 and the number of deaths outside China to 11—including two in Hong Kong, one in Taiwan, one in France, and one in the Philippines. Over 2,120 people have died so far in China, the origin of the virus, with another 75,000 infected.
One of the deceased cruise ship passengers in Japan was a 87-year-old man who suffered from asthma according to NHK, while the other passenger was an 84-year-old woman who didn’t suffer from any pre-existing conditions, despite early reports that mistakenly claimed she had underlying health issues. Both cruise ship passengers were Japanese nationals.
At least 620 of the 3,700 people from the Diamond Princess have tested positive for the coronavirus, technically known as SARS-CoV-2, and those people have been brought to nearby hospitals over the past two weeks. At least 27 of those who’ve tested positive are reportedly in serious condition with COVID-19, the name of the illness caused by the coronavirus. Starting Wednesday, people who don’t test positive for the virus have been allowed to leave, though the disembarking process is expected to take some time for the thousands still on board.
The 87-year-old deceased passenger of the Diamond Princess was hospitalised on February 11 and the 84-year-old deceased passenger was brought to a hospital on February 12. While their deaths were announced today, it’s not clear when exactly they died of coronavirus-related illness.
The Japanese government has received criticism for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, specifically its decision to quarantine so many people on a cruise ship together. An infectious disease specialist, Kentaro Iwata, was recently able to get on board the Diamond Princess after a lot of bureaucratic hurdles and claims that the ship was terribly managed to fight the disease.
Shockingly, Iwata said the entire operation was being handled by government bureaucrats instead of doctors or disease specialists and that there were no zones set up on the Diamond Princess to keep infected patients away from healthy patients.
“I was in Africa dealing with the Ebola outbreak. I was in other countries dealing with the cholera outbreak. I was in China in 2003 to deal with SARS […] I never had a fear of getting infection myself,” he said in a now-deleted YouTube video. “But inside Diamond Princess, I was so scared […] because there was no way to tell where the virus is.”
It’s not clear why Iwata deleted his YouTube videos in both Japanese and English, but the South China Morning Post reports that he stands by his assessment and other YouTube users have re-uploaded his video.
The Japanese government is pushing back, insisting that it did nothing wrong, especially when it comes to the two cruise passengers who recently died.
“We believe we handled the situation appropriately,” Japanese health ministry official Masami Sako said at a news conference Thursday. “We transferred the two passengers to hospitals as soon as we learned they had a fever. That was before we even had their test results.”
The U.S. State Department flew roughly 340 of the 400 American passengers of the Diamond Princess back to the U.S. on chartered planes earlier this week, though it didn’t intend to bring back anyone who tested positive for COVID-19. Everyone has been quarantined at either Travis Air Force Base in California or Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas and won’t be allowed to leave for at least 14 days. More than 14 American passengers who were brought back to the U.S. have tested positive for the virus and are receiving medical care.
South Korea is struggling with its own ability to contain the virus, reporting its first death from COVID-19 on Thursday. A 63-year-old man who died in the province of North Gyeongsang after being diagnosed with pneumonia was only discovered to have COVID-19 during a post-mortem examination, according to the Korea Times. The man had been bedridden for 20 years and local health officials are investigating how he got the virus.
Health officials in South Korea also reported 53 new cases of COVID-19, doubling the total number of infections in the country to 104. Korea Times reports that 51 of the new cases reported on Thursday are from the city of Daegu, with a population of 2.5 million, while the other two are in Seoul, the largest city in South Korea with roughy 10 million.
Daegu’s mayor, Kwon Young-jin, called the coronavirus outbreak an “unprecedented crisis,” and moved to close some schools and libraries in the region, according to a new report from Yonhap.
“Starting from today, please refrain from leaving your house as much as possible,” Kwon urged residents at a press conference on Thursday.
At least half of the new infections in Daegu are believed to be connected with a church called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. The church was founded in 1984 by a man named Lee Man-hee, aged 89, who is said to be the Messiah according to his followers. The church is often referred to in South Korea as a cult and is known for having large worship services of 1,000 people or more. Those services are reportedly being curtailed to fight the spread of the illness.
Iran also reported its first deaths from the virus on Wednesday, according to Iran’s state media outlet IRNA. The two patients who died did not have any contact with people from foreign nationals, including anyone from China, based on local media reports. The ages of the two patients was not released, but the New York Times quoted a local source describing them as “old.”
France reported its first death on February 15 and Taiwan reported its first death on February 17. And while the number of infections seems to be slowing in China, there’s very serious concern that the rest of the world is about to experience a full blown pandemic.