12 Canadian cruise ship passengers test positive for coronavirus

The latest:

  • Coronavirus case numbers spike significantly in China, mostly in Hubei province.
  • WHO official says increase ‘is in large part down to a change in how cases are diagnosed and reported’ in hard-hit province.
  • Shanghai’s former mayor to serve as top party official in Hubei as health officials struggle to deal with cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by a novel coronavirus.
  • Japan confirms 1st death linked to coronavirus.
  • Princess Cruises says Japan to proceed with ‘phased’ process allowing passengers to leave ship, complete quarantine on land.
  • 12 Canadians among the Diamond Princess passengers who tested positive, foreign minister says.
  • Risk in Canada still low, public health officials say. WATCH: What we actually know about the coronavirus

Japanese authorities might soon allow people quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship near Tokyo, where 12 Canadians have contracted the novel coronavirus, to disembark and finish out their isolation on land.

The 3,500 passengers on the ship have been under quarantine since last week, and so far 218 have tested positive for the disease, COVID-19.

It’s the biggest concentration of confirmed cases outside of mainland China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Outside cases on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, we are not seeing dramatic increases in cases outside China,” Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, told a news briefing in Geneva. A further 44 cases were reported on the Diamond Princess on Thursday, raising the total to 219.

Passengers stand on the deck of the cruise ship Diamond Princess at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo. The passengers have been living under quarantine amid a coronavirus outbreak.(Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

The 12 Canadians who contracted the virus on board the ship have been moved to Japanese health facilities, and at least three require hospitalization, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters while travelling with the prime minister in Senegal on a diplomatic trip.

Champagne said emergency response teams and consular officials are in Japan to make sure Canadians are receiving the help they need.

“We know that there are some people who need medications on board, they want to have contact with their families. We’re facilitating that,” Champagne said.

Canada has also dispatched health officials to Japan to co-ordinate with local public health authorities.

Japan plans to move passengers who wish to leave the ship in phases, with the most “medically vulnerable” guests being moved in the first phase, according to Princess Cruises, the line that owns the Diamond Princess.

WATCH: Canada’s foreign minister on coronavirus cases in Japan

Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne updates numbers of Canadians infected by the coronavirus on the cruise ship in Japan.0:44

That first group of people will be tested for the virus, and if they test negative, will be taken to a quarantine housing facility, the cruise line said in a press release.

If they test positive, they’ll be moved to a health facility.

The shore-side quarantine centre will include individual rooms with private bathrooms, and while passengers will continue to receive their medical prescriptions, they will not have access to specialized or Western meals. They will be served Japanese bento boxes for the duration of the quarantine, according to the release.

Everyone who wishes to stay on the ship will be allowed to do so.

Champagne said about 250 Canadians on a separate cruise ship off the shore of Cambodia, the Westerdam, have tested negative for the coronavirus and will be returned to Canada at the expense of the cruise line, Holland America.

The Westerdam finally anchored Thursday off Cambodia after being turned away by several Asian and Pacific governments. No cases of the viral illness have been confirmed among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members, according to operator Holland America Line.

Thailand refused to allow the Westerdam to dock this week after it had already been turned away by the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Guam over virus concerns.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter that all 20 passengers from the Westerdam who had been tested had returned negative results.

About 400 Canadians quarantined in Trenton

As for Canadians still in the centre of the viral outbreak, Champagne said all the 400 or so Canadians who wished to leave Hubei, the Chinese province that includes the city of Wuhan, have been repatriated and are quarantined in southern Ontario, at Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

There are still permanent Canadian residents in Hubei, he said. Though Chinese authorities initially stipulated that only Canadian passport holders would be able to leave the quarantined region, they seem to have relaxed that rule, Champagne said, but he did not elaborate on whether Canada would make arrangements to fly more of them out.

The last flight chartered by the Canadian government to evacuate people from the city of Wuhan, which landed at CFB Trenton on Tuesday, was the last the government plans to send to the region. Those Canadians who chose to stay behind in Hubei have been provided with consular services, Champagne said.

Almost 60,000 cases in China

The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in China reached 1,367 as of the end of Wednesday, up 254 from the previous day, China’s National Health Commission said.

Across mainland China, there were 15,152 new confirmed infections on Wednesday, bringing the total to 59,805.

There have been 447 cases in 24 other countries, Ryan said Thursday.

A doctor disinfects a room for medical staff with sanitizing equipment at a community health service centre in Qingshan district of Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (China Daily via Reuters)

WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told Reuters earlier that the health agency was seeking further clarity from China on the numbers, and that the organization understood “that the new case definition widens the net, and includes not only lab-confirmed cases but also clinically diagnosed cases based on symptoms and exposure.”

New diagnostic method introduced

The sharp increases came after Hubei authorities said they had started using a new, quicker diagnostic method involving computerized tomography (CT) scans, which health authorities said had diagnosed 13,332 of the new infections.

The CT scans reveal lung infections, the Hubei health commission said, and enable confirmation and faster isolation of new virus cases.

Hubei authorities had previously only allowed infections to be confirmed by RNA tests, which can take days to process. RNA, or ribonucleic acid, carries genetic information allowing for identification of organisms like viruses.

“In other words, in Hubei province only, a trained medical professional can now classify a suspected case of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> as a clinically-confirmed case on the basis of chest imaging, rather than a laboratory confirmation”-<a href=”https://twitter.com/DrMikeRyan?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@DrMikeRyan</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/coronavirus?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#coronavirus</a>

&mdash;@WHO

The diagnostic change is just in Hubei, WHO officials said on Thursday. Ryan said in the rest of the country — and the rest of the world — lab confirmation is still necessary.

Top officials in Wuhan and Hubei replaced

People inside China and around the world have raised questions about the initial response to the coronavirus outbreak.

China’s Communist Party has replaced the party heads in the coronavirus-stricken province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan, state media said on Thursday. The pair are the most high-profile officials to lose their posts following the epidemic.

Shanghai’s former mayor Ying Yong has been appointed as the new secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, replacing Jiang Chaoliang, the official Xinhua news agency said without explaining why Jiang was removed.

Ying worked closely with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter’s time as party boss and governor of Zhejiang province. He pledged to contain the outbreak in the region that has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus, the province’s official newspaper reported on Thursday.

Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang has also been removed, Xinhua reported separately. He has been replaced by Wang Zhonglin, party boss of Jinan city in eastern Shandong province.

Officials in Hubei have been heavily criticized for their handling of the epidemic in a province of almost 60 million people. The outbreak began in Wuhan late last year, and has spread throughout China.

1st death linked to coronavirus reported in Japan

On Thursday, Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death — an 80-year-old woman who lived in an area that borders on Tokyo, health officials said.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato says the woman had been treated at a hospital near Tokyo since early February after developing symptoms. Her infection was confirmed after her death.

CDC says U.S. has another case

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control confirmed another coronavirus case — the 15th case of COVID-19 in the country.

“The patient is among a group of people under a federal quarantine order at JBSA-Lackland in Texas because of their recent return to the U.S. on a State Department-chartered flight,” the CDC said in a statement.

The person who tested positive is in isolation at hospital.

WATCH: Infectious disease doctor takes your questions about the coronavirus outbreak

Dr. Michael Gardam, who was on the front lines during the SARS crisis, answers pressing questions about the coronavirus outbreak. 8:47

The CDC said 195 people were released from quarantine on Tuesday, but noted there are more than 600 people who returned to the U.S. on charter flights who are still living under federal quarantine.

In Vietnam, official media reported that a commune of 10,000 residents northwest of the capital Hanoi was put in lockdown due to a cluster of cases there. The online newspaper VN Express cited a senior official of Ving Phuc province as reporting an increase in cases in Son Loi commune. Vietnam has confirmed 16 cases of the disease, most of them in Son Loi.