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Americans return to U.S. after two weeks on coronavirus-affected cruise

(Reuters) – More than 300 U.S. citizens including 14 infected with the coronavirus were in the United States and under quarantine on Monday after spending two weeks stuck on a cruise ship off Japan that had the largest cluster of cases outside China.

A chartered evacuation aircraft operated by Kalitta Air waits for U.S. passengers who have chosen to leave the Diamond Princess cruise ship, to fly back to the United States, at Haneda airport in Japan February 17, 2020. Courtesy of Philip and Gay Courter/via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT PHILIP AND GAY COURTER. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.

The 14 people who tested positive were isolated in specialized containment areas aboard two chartered jets that flew to U.S. military bases, the State Department said in a statement.

At Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, a ground crew in anticontamination suits climbed the stairs to the plane on the tarmac in the predawn fog on Monday, news video showed. Passengers later descended wearing surgical masks.

A couple hours earlier, a separate chartered jet landed at Travis Air Force Base in California.

The passengers will remain under quarantine another 14 days.

The coronavirus outbreak has killed 1,770 people in China and five elsewhere, with Chinese officials reporting another 2,048 cases on Monday, raising the total to 70,548.

The cruise ship Diamond Princess, with 3,700 passengers total, held by far the largest cluster of cases outside China with more than 400 people testing positive.

The ship was ordered to stay under quarantine at Yokohama port on Feb. 3 after an 80-year-old Hong Kong man, who was on board from Jan. 20 to Jan. 25, developed the virus.

Some relatives of passengers criticized the decision to quarantine people on the ship given the possibility that the virus would spread to uninfected people on board.

“Not even the hospitals could contain the infection,” Blake Courter, whose parents, Phil and Gay Courter, were evacuated from the ship, told CNN. “It’s been our position since the beginning that that was not a safe quarantine.”

The back-to-back quarantines mean the passengers will spend a total of four weeks separated from the rest of the world, forcing families to scramble to get medicine and supplies to their loved ones.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, Blake’s sister, told CNN that their mother’s insulin would have run out were it not for an extraordinary effort to resupply her on board. But she said her parents were willing to endure further quarantine for the greater good.

“They know that this is the responsible choice for the protection of thousands of others,” Rhodes-Courter said. “And if that means my parents using a porta-potty a little longer than they had hoped, then they’re willing to do that and abide by the rules.”

Before the arrival of the sickened passengers from the cruise, U.S. officials had reported 15 cases in seven states, most of them travelers who had returned from China but also three who had been evacuated on other U.S.-chartered planes repatriating Americans.

Previously, more than 40 Americans on the Diamond Princess had tested positive, and U.S. health officials said they would remain in Japan for treatment.

The 300 people removed from the ship and due to board the U.S.-bound planes were evaluated by U.S. government medical staff and initially deemed asymptomatic and fit to fly, the State Department said.

But after passengers had left the ship and were on their way to the airport, U.S. officials received notice that 14 passengers in the group had tested positive, the State Department said. All had tested negative two to three days earlier.

“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 said.

The State Department said it decided to allow the 14 sickened Americans to fly home after consulting with U.S. health experts.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; additional reporting by Mekhla Raina; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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