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Fears mount over new coronavirus case in Westerdam cruise ship thought to be infection free

Feb 16. 2020
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By  The Washington Post · Gerry Shih · WORLD, HEALTH 

BEIJING - Concerns mounted on Sunday that authorities in Cambodia, including U.S. Embassy officials, had allowed passengers infected by the coronavirus to disembark from the Westerdam cruise ship and depart for other cities and countries around the world after Malaysian officials confirmed that a second exam for an ill passenger returned positive.

Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail told reporters Sunday that an 83-year old American passenger on the cruise liner tested positive for the coronavirus twice - once on Friday and once on Saturday - after she landed in Kuala Lumpur despite being screened earlier by Cambodian health officials. 

"The results were the same. That is positive for the wife and negative for her husband," Wan Azizah told reporters at a news conference, adding that Malaysia would now bar entry for all passengers from the cruise ship, according to Reuters.

The unexpected finding upends a basic assumption by several governments, including the United States, that the ship was virus-free and that passengers could be greeted at proximity without protective gear and allowed to travel.

The American woman, whose identity has not been disclosed, was among hundreds of relieved passengers who were let off the Westerdam on Friday and welcomed and embraced by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has downplayed the epidemic's threat and described the decision to bring them onshore as an act of humanitarian goodwill.

The U.S. ambassador, W. Patrick Murphy, also brought his family onboard the cruise ship and posed for pictures on Saturday with American passengers. Murphy and other passengers did not appear to be wearing a mask in photos shared on the embassy's Twitter account.

Disembarkation, which was set to continue over the weekend, was halted Sunday, according to Cambodian journalists at the scene.

On Saturday, Cambodia's health minister issued a public statement urging the public to "not be overly afraid" but to take protective measures. On Saturday night, charter flights that were originally scheduled to take Westerdam passengers to Kuala Lumpur were canceled by Malaysian authorities.

As of Sunday, authorities worldwide have tallied roughly 69,000 cases of covid-19 and 1,669 deaths. The overwhelming majority of infections remain in mainland China, which reported 2,009 new cases on Saturday.

In Taiwan, authorities reported the first death on Sunday, a man in his 60s with diabetes and hepatitis but no recent history of overseas travel, according to the state-run Central News Agency. Officials said they were still investigating how the man contracted the virus while living in the central part of Taiwan, which has so far recorded 20 confirmed cases across the island.

Chinese officials said Sunday they believed that measures taken across the country to control the epidemic were paying off. Several cities in the central region have declared strict "wartime measures" that allow residents to leave their homes only several times a week and upon approval from neighborhood authorities. 

Guards in Hubei are now required to check identification 24-hours a day at the entrance to residential compounds and driving is also banned for all nonessential purposes under new regulations released Sunday. 

The number of new cases across China, including in Hubei, were falling, said Chinese National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng, who noted that doctors in the worst-hit province had broadened their diagnosis criteria for patients suspected of suffering from the disease and were able to treat them more quickly.

"The effects of our counter-coronavirus measures in every part of the country are already becoming apparent," Mi said.

The Westerdam was believed to have no infections onboard among the 2,200 crew and passengers who were stranded at sea for weeks as countries rejected their entry following a stop in Hong Kong where they took on hundreds of new passengers.

Health experts have warned that the coronavirus is difficult to contain precisely because symptoms are often mild and the coronavirus could replicate inside the human body and infect others for more than two weeks before showing symptoms at all.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said Cambodian officials individually screened all disembarking passengers for fever with the help of embassy staff this week, and any passenger who reported feeling ill had received lab tests, all of which returned negative. The tests were processed by a lab trusted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Embassy said.

The Westerdam and another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess in Japan, are posing logistical and public health challenges for governments as they try to contain the spread of the disease known as covid-19 and repatriate citizens.

The United States prepared to evacuate American citizens from the Diamond Princess on Sunday as the number of coronavirus diagnoses continued to rise sharply among the 3,700 passengers and crew originally onboard.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said early Sunday that the quarantined ship floating near Tokyo now has 355 confirmed cases, or about 30 percent of the 1,219 people who have been tested so far. That represents one of the highest infection rates in the world.

Three Israelis on board have been found positive for the virus, according to the Israeli Health Ministry, but their condition is mild and they are now in a hospital in Japan. The ministry added that an expert physician has been sent to liaise with Japanese health officials.

The U.S. government-chartered flights comes days after public health experts warned that time spent on the Diamond Princess, which has been quarantined since Feb. 5, increases the risk of coronavirus exposure and Japanese authorities began letting some passengers disembark to complete their quarantine on land.

Two charter flights are scheduled to depart from Japan Sunday evening and bring roughly 380 evacuated Americans from the Diamond Princess to military bases in Texas and California, where they will be quarantined and monitored for an additional 14 days.

Canada, South Korea, Italy and Hong Kong announced Sunday they would also arrange charter flights.

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