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Some Americans Arrive In U.S. After Being Quarantined In Japan


In the early hours of this morning, two closely watched planes touched down in the United States. Onboard were more than 300 Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess. That is the cruise ship quarantined in Japan due to coronavirus. The planes left Tokyo and went straight to military bases in California and Texas. NPR's Jason Beaubien has been following this story from Hong Kong and joins us. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

GREENE: So this was just an extraordinary evacuation to follow. I mean, these images show these Americans coming off the cruise ship onto buses. The personnel helping them are wearing, I mean, these hazmat suits. The passengers then get onto planes. They're flown out. I mean, just the situation on this ship - I mean, it sounds like it's just been dire.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I mean, the Diamond Princess had nearly 4,000 people on board. It's been quarantined for two weeks now. People were isolated in their cabins. They were not supposed to have interaction with other passengers or staff. You know, instead of the elaborate buffets, it's been, you know, these boxed meals left outside their doors. And despite this lockdown, the virus has been steadily spreading on the ship. Japanese officials now say more than 400 people have been infected. Here's what Cheryl Molesky, one of the passengers, told the Associated Press.


CHERYL MOLESKY: A little bit scary with the numbers going up, people taken off the ship with the COVID-19 virus. So, you know it's - I think it's time to go.

BEAUBIEN: The U.S. State Department says 14 of the evacuees had tested positive for the new coronavirus but weren't showing symptoms of the disease, and they were allowed to board the planes, although they isolated them from the rest of the passengers once they did get on board.

GREENE: OK, so they're off the ship. These passengers get on these planes. They're back here in the United States now, but, I mean, it's not like they can just head home. Like, what will their treatment look like? What happens now?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, so these people are heading into quarantine. They're going into two weeks of quarantine at Travis Air Base in Northern California and Lackland Air Base near San Antonio. They're going to be monitored. They'll be isolated from the other evacuees from China who are already there and serving a quarantine. Anyone who gets sick is going to get treated at civilian hospitals. And you have to expect that these people who had tested positive and were allowed on board are probably going to get isolated and sent to medical settings right away. But it's going to be 14 days at least before any of them can go home.

GREENE: And we're not talking about all the Americans, right? I want to be clear here - these planes were not carrying all the Americans who were onboard that ship.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, that's right. Some didn't want to face the two-week quarantine in the U.S. You've got to understand that the Japanese authorities had set the end date for the quarantine as February 19, so if the Japanese stick to that, these passengers could get released in a couple of days. However, given that the toll continues to go up and up of how many people are infected, the Japanese might push that date back. And the other reason that not all the Americans were on those charters is because some of them have already been hospitalized in Japan. As of this weekend, there were 44 Americans onboard who had tested positive, and some of them had already been taken off the boat because they were sick.

GREENE: Jason, as we look at how bad things got on this boat, I mean, do we know why they got so severe, and can we learn anything about this virus from the situation on the ship?

BEAUBIEN: You know, this is the problem. We really don't know. This is a new virus. We hadn't seen this before December. We don't really have a good understanding of how it spreads. What the Diamond Princess does show us is that this virus is capable of spreading in situations outside of China quite rapidly. You know, let's be clear. The situation in China is much worse, but this situation on this cruise ship shows that the - it can spread in other situations. And there's another cruise ship out there at the moment, the MS Westerdam - actually unloaded 1,500 passengers in Cambodia. And then the next day, one of them tested positive after arriving in Malaysia. And there's great concern that more of those passengers might be infected and could be spreading it to other places as they go home.

GREENE: All right. We really appreciate the reporting, Jason. That's NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting for us on the coronavirus from Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.