Coronavirus Live Updates: Japan Reports First Deaths of Passengers From Quarantined Ship

Two passengers from the cruise ship quarantined in Japan have died after contracting the new coronavirus, the first deaths among the more than 600 people on board who have been infected, a Japanese health ministry official said on Thursday.

The two people, both Japanese, were an 87-year-old man and an 84-year-old woman, the Japanese broadcaster NHK reported. They were taken to hospitals on Feb. 11 and 12, and both had underlying health issues, the broadcaster said. No other information about them was immediately available.

Hundreds of passengers have begun disembarking from the ship, the Diamond Princess, after Japan declared the two-week quarantine over, even as cases of the virus on the vessel have continued to rise.

The authorities have said they are releasing only people who have tested negative for the virus and are showing no symptoms. But experts on infectious diseases have pointed to deficiencies in the quarantine protocols on the ship and questioned the decision to let them go free.

China reported a dramatic decrease in new coronavirus infections on Thursday, as health officials changed the way they counted confirmed cases for the second time in over a week.

All 747 crew members remaining aboard the cruise ship Westerdam in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, have been tested for the coronavirus, and none of them were found to be infected, the cruise company, Holland America Line, announced Thursday.

With these tests results, all 1,528 passengers and crew members who remained in Cambodia have tested negative for the virus and are cleared to leave the country, the cruise company said.

“This completes the testing ordered by the Cambodian Ministry of Health related to Westerdam,” Holland America said.

The ship, which left Hong Kong on Feb. 1 with more than 2,200 people aboard, was turned away by ports in five countries before Cambodia agreed to let it dock a week ago.

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

The company said there was never any sign of coronavirus aboard the ship, but one passenger, an American woman, was found to have the virus after she departed and was stopped by airport health inspectors in Malaysia.

Some health experts fear that the woman, 83, may have exposed other passengers who have returned to their homes around the world. More than 600 passengers on the ship were American.

Holland America said Wednesday that all 781 passengers who remained in Cambodia had tested negative for the disease and were free to leave the country.

About 25 crew members will leave the Westerdam for their homes and the ship will depart from Cambodia in a few days, the cruise company said. The Westerdam’s next cruise, which was scheduled for Japan, has been canceled.

South Korea reported what officials said could be its first death from the coronavirus on Thursday, as the number of people infected soared to 104.

A 63-year-old patient with symptoms of pneumonia died on Wednesday at the Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, a town in the southeast of South Korea, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Thursday, officials learned that the patient had been infected with the coronavirus.

The patient had been hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of the hospital for the past 20 years, officials said. Health officials have been testing the 109 patients in the psychiatric ward, as well as staff members, since two patients tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.

South Korea reported 53 additional cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, bringing the country’s total number of patients infected to 104.

The number of people who have tested positive for the virus has increased sharply in the past couple of days, with 43 members of a church in Daegu, 180 miles southeast of Seoul, the capital, confirmed to have been infected.

All but two of the 53 new patients were residents of Daegu or the surrounding province of North Gyeongsang. Twenty-eight of them were members of the church.

A 61-year-old South Korean woman in Daegu was diagnosed with the virus earlier this week. Since then, health officials have been tracking down people who may have come in contact with her before she was quarantined, including members of her church.

She had visited the Shincheonji Church of Jesus twice since she first developed a sore throat, a potential symptom of the virus, on Feb. 7, officials said.

The woman has not visited China in recent months, and officials were trying to find out how she contracted the virus. The church has stopped services, and the authorities were monitoring all 1,001 members who had visited the church while she was there in the past two weeks.

Officials were also investigating a possible connection between the woman and the Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, which she visited in early February. A total of 15 patients at the hospital have tested positive so far, including the man who died on Wednesday.

Mayor Kwon Young-jin of Daegu said on Thursday that the city has reached 600 Shincheonji church members, 90 of whom reported fever and other potential symptoms. Health officials will test those 90 for the virus, he said. But the city was still trying to reach nearly 400 church members who remained incommunicado.

“We keep calling them at this moment, trying to reach them,” Mr. Kwon told reporters.

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus said it was urging all members to cooperate with the government.

When the Chinese health authorities announced on Thursday that they were using new criteria to count cases of the coronavirus, they appeared to be undoing a change they had announced just a week ago.

That earlier change, announced in Hubei Province, the hardest-hit area of the outbreak, allowed local health officials to take into account cases diagnosed in clinical settings, including with the use of CT scans showing lung infections, not just those confirmed with specialized testing kits.

The government in Hubei has been confronted with a severe shortage of testing kits and hospital beds, and officials described the use of CT scans and clinical symptoms as a way to help identify and get more patients into needed care.

But in the sixth and latest iteration of a diagnosis plan, the government said it would now apply the same criteria across the country, including in Hubei. There would only be “suspected” and “confirmed” cases from now on, and cases would only be considered confirmed after genetic testing.

The change has caused confusion among public health experts, who said it is now even more difficult to track the outbreak in China.

“For an epidemiologist, it’s really frustrating when case definitions keep on changing,” said Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong. “Why can’t they work out what’s a probable, suspected and confirmed case? It’s totally confusing.”

Health officials have run into problems with the specialized testing kits, which can be difficult to conduct and often turn up false negatives. It also takes at least two days to process the results of the test.

But lung scans are also an imperfect means to diagnose patients, leading to the possibility of an overcount. Even patients with ordinary seasonal flu may develop pneumonia visible on a lung scan.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China defended its decision to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters in retaliation for a headline in the newspaper’s opinion section.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the ministry, pushed back against the notion that the reporters should not be faulted for a piece in the editorial pages, which operate separately.

China’s banks are lowering borrowing costs for companies and households in a move to try to soften the economic blow of the coronavirus.

The move follows a series of policies enacted by China’s central bank to shore up an economy hobbled by weeks of a near-nationwide shutdown of businesses. On Thursday, the People’s Bank of China said it lowered the one-year loan prime rate from 4.15 percent to 4.05 percent, and slashed the five-year loan rate to 4.75 percent from 4.8 percent.

Dozens of business owners have complained about China’s efforts to contain the virus by locking down dozens of cities. The move grounded to a halt the daily activity of local businesses — including small shops and large factories.

Economists are lowering their growth expectations for China this year as businesses are only just haltingly beginning to get back to work. Some said the move on Thursday would do little to address the widespread impact of the epidemic on China’s business community.

One-third of small firms in China are on the brink of running out of cash over the next four weeks under the current situation, according to a survey by Peking University and Tsinghua University of 1,000 business owners. Another third will run out of cash in the next two months. Many of these firms have already laid off employees.

The “rate cuts alone will provide limited relief to the millions of small private firms that are suffering the most from the epidemic and are poorly served by formal banking,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, an economist at Capital Economics.

The coronavirus epidemic has become the latest and potentially most divisive issue driving apart the United States and China. For the fiercest critics of China within the Trump administration, panic over the coronavirus has provided a new opening to denounce the rule of the Communist Party, which they say cannot be trusted.

But the hard-liners’ message has been undermined at times by President Trump, who has publicly commended President Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis and even called for greater commercial ties, including the sale of jet engines to China.

“Look,’’ Mr. Trump said on Tuesday, “I know this: President Xi loves the people of China, he loves his country, and he’s doing a very good job with a very, very tough situation.”

It has become a staple of the Trump administration: sending mixed messages that reflect a good-cop-bad-cop tactic, a real internal disagreement over policy or simply the caprice of the president. But over all, the most hawkish voices on China have dominated the conversation, lashing out at Beijing as it reels from one challenge after another — a trade war with Washington, protests in Hong Kong and now the struggle to contain the coronavirus.

Mr. Trump’s conciliatory comments this week might be an effort to defuse tensions and keep the U.S. economy humming as he faces re-election. That approach is backed by a pro-trade faction led by Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, which advocates close ties between the world’s two largest economies.

Whether it is because of the assertiveness of the hard-liners, the ambiguities fueled by the competing messages or Beijing’s policies, the relationship between the United States and China has become so strained and unpredictable that even the need for a united effort to address a global health crisis has not overcome the suspicions that have increasingly taken root on both sides.

Reporting and research were contributed by Choe Sang-Hun, Alexandra Stevenson, Richard C. Paddock, Russell Goldman, Sui-Lee Wee, Steven Lee Myers, Elaine Yu, Tiffany May, Edward Wong, Makiko Inoue and Eimi Yamamitsu.

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