Coronavirus has now infected at least 219 people, including 15 crew members, and at least one quarantine officer.
Hundreds of passengers began leaving the Diamond Princess cruise ship on Wednesday after the end of a much-criticised, two-week quarantine that failed to stop the spread of a new virus among passengers and crew.
Results were still pending for some passengers who have been tested for the coronavirus that has infected tens of thousands of people in China and more than 540 on the ship.
Some passengers said on social media that they received health check forms asking if they had symptoms such as a headache, fever or coughing.
Passengers who tested negative and had no symptoms still had to get their body temperature checked before leaving.
Japanese soldiers helped escort some passengers, including an elderly man in a wheelchair who wore a face mask and held a cane.
Some passengers apparently called taxis to get home; others got on buses to be transported to train stations. Some people still in their ship cabins waved farewell from their balconies to those who had already disembarked.
“I’m a bit concerned if I’m OK to get off the ship, but it was getting very difficult physically,” a 77-year-old man from Saitama, near Tokyo, who got off with his wife, told Kyodo News. “For now, we just want to celebrate.”
About 500 passengers were expected to leave on Wednesday and Japanese officials will spend several days staging the high-stakes evacuation of about 2,000 others who were kept on board the ship at the Yokohama port near Tokyo after one passenger who departed the Diamond Princess earlier in Hong Kong was found to have the virus.
The 3,711 people, including 1,100 crew members, on the Diamond Princess, went into quarantine off Japan on February 5, after it emerged that a former passenger had tested positive for the new coronavirus.
The ship, which some experts have called a perfect virus incubator, has become the site of the most infections outside of China, where the illness named COVID-19 emerged late last year.
As of Tuesday, 542 cases have been identified among the original 3,711 people on the ship.
Even though Japanese officials insisted the number of infected patients is levelling off, dozens of new cases on the ship continue to mount daily.
On Tuesday, 88 people tested positive; a day earlier 99 others were found to have been infected.
Crew members, who could not be confined to their rooms over the last two weeks because they were working, are expected to stay on the ship.
The ship’s operator, Princess Cruises, said in a statement on Tuesday that 169 people who tested positive recently were still on the ship as they waited for transportation to hospitals.
Over the weekend, the United States started evacuating more than 300 people who are now in quarantine in the US for another 14 days.
South Korea earlier on Wednesday returned seven people from the cruise ship, placing the six South Koreans and one Japanese family member into quarantine.
Other foreign passengers were to be picked up by chartered flights sent from Canada, Australia, Italy and Hong Kong.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga defended Japan’s handling of the quarantine.
“In the beginning, the United States expressed gratitude for the Japanese side. And there are many Americans who chose to stay on the ship,” Suga said.
Japanese health officials said the 14-day quarantine on the ship was adequate, noting that all but one of more than 500 Japanese returnees from the epicentre of the virus in China who initially tested negative were found to be virus-free at the end of their 14-day quarantine.
Michael Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, acknowledged there “has been much more transmission than expected on the ship”.
But, he added, “it is very easy in retrospect to make judgements on public health decisions made at a certain point”.