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U.S. To Evacuate Americans From Virus-Struck Diamond Princess Cruise Ship

Passengers walk along the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, on which about 3,600 people have been quarantined because of fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus.
Charly Triballeau
AFP via Getty Images
Passengers walk along the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, on which about 3,600 people have been quarantined because of fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus.

Updated at 4:28 p.m. ET

The U.S. State Department is sending a charter plane to evacuate Americans aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that is in quarantine in Japan because of the spread of the coronavirus named COVID-19.

On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo sent a letter to U.S. citizens aboard the ship informing them of the planned extraction scheduled for Sunday night.

Once back in the U.S., passengers from the cruise ship will be forced to undergo another period of quarantine at either Travis Air Force Base in California or Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. According to the embassy letter:

"Travelers returning to the United States from high-risk areas are required to undergo quarantine. Accordingly, you will need to undergo further quarantine of 14 days when you arrive in the United States. We understand this is frustrating and an adjustment, but these measures are consistent with the careful policies we have instituted to limit the potential spread of the disease. We appreciate your understanding and cooperation and will provide all the assistance we can to support the quarantine process."

John Montgomery and his wife, Carol, from San Clemente, Calif., are among the nearly 400 U.S. citizens on the Diamond Princess. They will be taking the State Department's charter plane and said they are "excited and relieved" to return to the U.S.

"We just didn't think this quarantine is a valid quarantine, and we felt it would be much safer for us to get off this ship and be quarantined somewhere else," Montgomery told NPR.

After undergoing 10 days of quarantine on the ship, Montgomery said he and his wife feel fine. Despite it being "a bit of a bummer" that they'll have to undergo 14 more days of quarantine in the U.S., he said they understand the precaution.

"Because we've been kind of mixed up with all the people on the ship ... we understand why, through an abundance of caution, that an additional testing and evaluation and quarantine would guarantee that we're not bringing it back to the states," he said.

Another 67 people aboard the ship tested positive for the coronavirus, Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato announced Saturday. In all, nearly 300 people aboard the ship have tested positive.

At least 50,580 cases of the coronavirus have been identified globally as of Saturday, according to the World Health Organization. The total number of deaths stands at 1,526, with all but two fatalities occurring in China.

The quarantine of the cruise ship and its 3,600 passengers is set to end Wednesday. But as more cases have been identified onboard, it's unclear whether Japan's ministry of health will extend the quarantine.

If U.S. citizens wait for the ship's quarantine to end and choose not take the charter flight, the State Department said, they "will be unable to return to the United States for a period of time."

The State Department said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would make a final decision on when passengers would be allowed to return to the U.S. if they did not take the charter plane.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement on Saturday that the returning cruise ship passengers "will be housed separately from individuals already in quarantine from previous Wuhan repatriation flights."

All travelers from Japan will be screened multiple times during the repatriation process, including before leaving the ship, before the plane takes off, in flight and again upon arrival in the U.S.

HHS added that the risk of exposure and infection to the coronavirus remains low in the U.S.

The Department of Defense announced Saturday that it is extending the use of temporary housing facilities to quarantine travelers and passengers undergoing repatriation through March 15.

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Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.