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Coronavirus

Trapped in cabins, travelers find dream voyage a nightmare

Passengers endure dirty sheets and rooms as infections jump to 135

The Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama,. The ship's operator will refund the full fare for all passengers who have not been able to disembark there.    © Kyodo

TOKYO -- If it is any consolation, the operator of the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked at Yokohama, says it will refund the full fare for passengers unable to disembark.

But with the restaurants shut down and the movie screenings canceled, the voyage has turned hellish for the more than 2,500 passengers who shelled out the equivalent of $2,700 to $4,400 for the 16-day experience. (Suites went for $9,800 to $12,600.)

"Cabins have gone largely uncleaned and bed linens unchanged for nearly a week," reads a letter by frustrated passengers delivered Monday to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

As the 14-day quarantine for the coronavirus continues, many have complained about the discomfort of being confined to small cabins. "The environment on board is rapidly growing worse day by day," said the plea.

The dramatic rise in infections has added fear to frustration. The ministry reported 65 more confirmed cases on the ship Monday, bringing the total to 135 -- the largest concentration of patients outside China.

Japan has tested 439 of the roughly 3,700 passengers and crew members on board, prioritizing those who report not feeling well or who have been in close contact with others known to have contracted the virus. The government had considered testing everyone on board, but its limited capacity and growing concern about the special-needs passengers forced it to abandon this option.

Those testing positive are taken off the ship and sent to medical institutions. The remaining passengers have been largely confined to their rooms since the quarantine began Feb. 5.

The quarantine began after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong tested positive. The infected include two restaurant workers, two drink servers, a room cleaner and an operator of a bus tour that the original sick passenger took.

Each of these workers had contact with large numbers of people, raising "the possibility that second- or third-generation transmission was taking place," said microbiology professor Shigeki Nakamura of Tokyo Medical University.

Passengers have been directed to stay in their rooms as much as possible to keep the outbreak from spreading further. With restaurants shut down, meals are delivered to each cabin. Crew members have been told to avoid touching doorknobs and instead ask passengers to open room doors themselves.

Other large gatherings, such as movie screenings, have been canceled. Passengers in windowless cabins have been allowed out on deck for limited periods so long as they wear gloves and masks and keep their distance from other people.

The ship is also short on medicine. Some passengers have diabetes or high blood pressure and are close to running out of the drugs they packed for the 16-day trip.

A woman hangs a flag reading "medicine shortage" in Japanese on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.   © Reuters

The extended isolation is also harming people's health, according to the passengers' letter. It demanded expert caregivers, such as nurses, as well as a new contact point to handle customers' needs in light of inappropriate responses and neglect by the crew.

"Anti-virus measures are the only priority, and consideration is missing for passengers with special needs, such as those who are older, disabled or chronically ill," it said.

Given health concerns, the ministry has decided to let some of these passengers, who face especially high health risks from a coronavirus infection, disembark starting Tuesday. They will be accommodated at medical institutions or elsewhere.

Diamond Princess operator Princess Cruises said Monday that it will refund the full fare for all passengers who could not disembark at Yokohama. This includes air travel, hotels, ground transportation, shore excursions and gratuities, as well as transportation to hospitals for guests diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The company, owned by British-American giant Carnival, also said it will not charge for any expenses incurred after the cruise officially ended Feb. 4, and it will offer a credit for future cruises equal to the original fare paid.

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