By Chris Gallagher and Chang-Ran Kim
TOKYO (Reuters) – More than 30 crew members on an Italian cruise ship docked for repairs in Japan’s Nagasaki prefecture have tested positive for the new coronavirus, raising concern about the impact on the local community.
The cluster of infections found on board the Costa Atlantica follows the case of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama two months ago, where more than 700 were found to be infected, although this time only crew members were on board.
The Costa Cruises-operated ship was taken into a shipyard in Nagasaki city, in western Japan, in late February by a unit of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries <7011.T> after the virus pandemic had scuttled plans for scheduled repairs in China.
The vessel has 623 crew, and after detecting one had been infected tests were carried out on close contacts among fellow crew members.
Nagasaki prefectural authorities on Wednesday said they had confirmed a total 34 infections on the ship and appealed for help from the central government to tackle the incident.
“There are a lot of infections on board, and we don’t have the medical system to confirm the health situation and to separate” those who test positive and negative, Governor Hodo Nakamura told a news conference.
“We’ll also need a system for transporting patients. It’s difficult for the prefecture to carry out decontamination work so I want to seek the country’s support.”
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told a separate news conference that the health ministry was cooperating with the Italian government and had sent specialists and cluster infection experts to the ship.
CONCERN FOR LOCAL COMMUNITY
Concern was growing, however, about the potential impact on Nagasaki residents after revelations that some crew had left the restricted area where the ship was being repaired.
A Mitsubishi official, at the same news conference, said the company had been assured by Costa Atlantica that crew would not leave the terminal as of March 14, but it later found out that some had left, for reasons such as visiting hospital or going to the airport to return home upon completion of their work contract.
“Our understanding is that any departure was not for purposes such as sightseeing or eating out,” the official said. He added that anyone leaving the terminal area was screened, with no one allowed out if they had a fever of over 37.5 degrees Celsius.
“We had been told that there was no embarking or disembarking so this is a very regrettable situation,” Nakamura said in response.
The governor also faulted the Italian cruise ship operator for not managing the movements of its crew in the manner it had promised, when asked his view on Mitsubishi’s responsibility.
News of the ship infections was trending on Twitter and sparked comparisons to the Diamond Princess, which had been quarantined in February. The virus spread to more than 700 people on board the Diamond Princess and experts criticised the government’s quarantine process.
“What, have none of the lessons of the Diamond Princess been learned? It was docked for repairs but were they urgent enough to require this, why was this allowed?” one user tweeted. “They should go back to their own country as soon as possible.”
Japanese health authorities are testing other crew on board the Costa Atlantica.
Those who test positive with slight symptoms or who are asymptomatic will stay aboard for monitoring, while those in serious condition will be taken to medical institutions, Nakamura said, with those testing negative sent to home nations.
Japan has seen more than 11,500 infections and close to 300 deaths from the new coronavirus, excluding figures from the Diamond Princess. (Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.)
(This story fixes typo in paragraph 10)
(Reporting by Chris Gallagher and Chang-Ran Kim; Additional reporting by Naomi Tajitsu and Elaine Lies; Writing by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman & Simon Cameron-Moore)