A Japanese woman in her 80s infected with the new coronavirus died Thursday, becoming the country's first confirmed fatality, the health minister said, as more cases of infection were reported besides hundreds on a quarantined cruise ship near Tokyo.
The woman from Kanagawa Prefecture near the Japanese capital, who had not traveled overseas recently, was found to be infected with the virus after she died, health minister Katsunobu Kato told a press conference.
She had been diagnosed with pneumonia and hospitalized since Feb. 1, the health ministry said, adding her breathing deteriorated on Feb. 6.
The government is wrestling with the spread of the pneumonia-causing virus. On Thursday, 44 additional infections were found aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with thousands of passengers and crew isolated at Yokohama in the same prefecture.
In Wakayama Prefecture, a surgeon in his 50s became the first doctor in Japan to be infected with the virus, the local government said. It was not known whether he had close contact with visitors from China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
A taxi driver in his 70s also contracted the virus in Tokyo. The driver was quoted as saying by a Tokyo metropolitan government official that he had not transported foreign visitors in the two weeks before he showed symptoms and health authorities are seeking to determine how he got the virus.
The latest cases bring the total number of confirmed infections to around 250 in Japan. The bulk, 218, are passengers and crew of the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokoyama near Tokyo.
The tally includes foreign tourists visiting from Wuhan, the epicenter of the viral outbreak and a Japanese bus driver who had close contact with Chinese tourists in Japan.
The government has been stepping up its efforts to prevent the spread of infections and strengthen border controls. It has decided to spend a total of 15.3 billion yen ($140 million) on emergency steps against the virus. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government will make sure that over 600 million masks will be supplied a month.
With thousands of passengers and crew isolated on the cruise ship for days, 44 more people were confirmed as infected with the virus on Thursday, according to the ministry.
The government has decided to allow elderly passengers suffering from chronic illnesses to disembark earlier than scheduled if they test negative for the virus.
The roughly 200 passengers aged 80 and over on the Diamond Princess may be allowed off the ship as early as Friday, depending on their wishes and health condition, Kato told reporters, adding those with pre-existing conditions have already undergone screening.
Those who are allowed off the ship will stay at facilities arranged by the government until the isolation period ends next Wednesday. The more than 3,500 passengers and crew were originally scheduled to be confined aboard the ship through that day.
"There are some people whose health may deteriorate by staying (aboard) for an extended period," said Kato, while indicating the ministry may lower the age for people allowed to disembark.
After a male passenger in his 80s was found to be infected with the virus after leaving the vessel in Hong Kong, the ministry has checked the health of all those still on the ship, testing those with symptoms and others who came in close contact with them. The ship arrived in Yokohama on Feb. 3.
The ministry has since requested people to stay in their cabins to prevent the spread of the virus after taking those infected as well as those who fell ill to hospital.
But as the days mount up without sufficient cleaning services and medical support, there have been growing calls from the remaining passengers for more doctors to come on board.
Meanwhile, the first group of Japanese nationals evacuated from Wuhan on a government-chartered aircraft amid the coronavirus outbreak was allowed to go home Thursday after a little over two weeks of isolation.
A total of 197 people had been quarantined at a hotel in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo, and government facilities since they returned on Jan. 29 from the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak.
They all tested negative in their final virus examination conducted Tuesday after completing a 12.5-day monitoring period for the pneumonia-causing virus.
The health ministry said returnees on the second chartered aircraft that arrived on Jan. 30 will also be free to return home if their latest test results that come out later in the day show they are not infected.
"I appreciated the kind treatment we were shown by government officials and people at the hotel. I was able to spend my days without much stress," said a man in his 30s from Mie Prefecture who was among the returnees. "I want to thank the local people who have encouraged us too."
The Tokyo government said it will provide 50 temporary public housing units free of charge for those who do not immediately have a place to live available.
The coronavirus outbreak has already claimed more than 1,300 lives in China, with the number of people infected with the virus on the country's mainland close to 60,000, according to its health authorities. (mainichi)