US evacuates Americans off coronavirus cruise ship quarantine -- and they're not happy about it

Meet the new quarantine, same as the old quarantine. Two charter flights from Japan took hundreds of Americans from the cruise ship Diamond Princess to California and Texas, but not all of them are happy to be back in the good ol’ US. The evacuation comes from an “about face” on the US policy on coronavirus, CNN reports, and leaves all of the Americans stuck in limbo for at least two weeks longer than they first thought.

“I’ve lost a month of my life,” one American woman says after finding out that the US changed its mind about relying on the Japanese quarantine process:

Not everyone chose to get evacuated, but they’re stuck either way. The US will require those who remain to commit to another quarantine after the Diamond Princess is allowed to disembark in Yokohama later this week. That’s what has some of the quarantined Americans hopping mad today, even if they are coming home:

Thousands of people have been stuck in their cabins under mandatory quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess, which is docked off the Japanese port city of Yokohama, since February 3. With 356 confirmed cases of coronavirus on board, 70 of which were announced Sunday, the ship has the largest concentration of novel coronavirus cases outside mainland China. On February 19, the controversial quarantine period was set to finally end.

Until Saturday, the US government seemed on board with that plan. The consensus among government agencies, which had been communicated to the more than 400 Americans aboard, was that remaining on the ship for the quarantine period was the best course of action. …

On Saturday afternoon, the US Embassy in Tokyo sent a notice to Americans on board the Diamond Princess laying out plans to evacuate nearly 400 Americans back home.

Once there, another 14 days of mandatory quarantine would begin. Anyone who chose not to get on the flight would have to wait another 14 days in Japan to ensure they were symptom-free before returning to the US.

That decision has prompted anger among the American passengers, with many demanding answers to two simple questions about the US response: Why did the American government wait so long to make the about-face decision? What prompted such a dramatic shift in US policy?

The news didn’t get any better once they got to the airport, either. Tests performed earlier confirmed that two dozen more Americans in the evacuation group had COVID-19, and had to be separated on the plane:

In a statement, the U.S. State Department spokesperson said Monday that American evacuees were all deemed asymptomatic and fit to fly before being processed for evacuation.

But during the evacuation process, after passengers had left the ship and gone to the airport, U.S. officials received notice that 14 passengers, who had been tested two to three days earlier, had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“These individuals were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols,” the State Department’s spokesperson said in the statement.

The spokesperson said the State Department made the decision to allow the 14 individuals, who were in isolation, separated from other passengers and continued to be asymptomatic, to remain on the aircraft to complete the evacuation process after a consultation with health officials.

This is likely what drove the Trump administration’s decision to evacuate the Americans off the Diamond Princess overnight. The number of positive cases had begun to spike, with 70 new cases identified in the past couple of days, suggesting that the quarantine within the ship wasn’t effective at containing the spread. One CDC official told the New York Times that the risk was both higher and longer-lasting, which required a change in approach:

While the letter did not explicitly give a reason for the change, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested on Friday that the authorities had re-evaluated the ship’s conditions.

“The data coming out of Japan suggests there’s a higher risk among the people on the ship,” the official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, said during a news briefing.

Sixty-seven new cases were announced aboard the ship on Saturday, the most in a single day since the quarantine began.

In retrospect, the decision to leave people on the ship seems curious at best. Cruise ships are known for their ability to transmit illnesses rapidly, thanks to the close quarters and constant universal access to food and facilities. It would have been better to order an immediate evacuation under quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus to healthy individuals, something that experts had suggested at least a week ago. In fact, evidence had already emerged that the quarantine was not being strictly observed, as CNN reports:

The abrupt change in US policy led some to believe that Washington lost faith in the effectiveness of the Japanese response. Earlier this week, it emerged that some 1,000 crew on board the ship had not been kept in quarantine, eating meals together with masks off and working side by side.

Under those circumstances, the US had little choice but to get its citizens off the ship and into an effective quarantine. That means another two weeks lost for these passengers, but unfortunately, there’s not any other way around this. Hopefully the facilities in the US will be more comfortable than on the plane.