Sister of Michigan woman quarantined on Diamond Princess: ‘They’re just sitting ducks’

DETROIT —The situation is growing more dire for passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan, where the novel coronavirus is spreading and a Sterling Heights, Mich., woman remains quarantined.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry confirmed 44 new cases Wednesday night of novel coronavirus, newly named COVID-19, aboard the cruise ship, the Japan Times reported. That brings the total number of passengers with the virus to 218 —more than any other place outside China, according to the World Health Organization.

“They’re just sitting ducks. That’s all I can say,” said Marci Wulfmeier of Franklin, Mich., whose sister, Myra LaRouche, 72, of Sterling Heights is among the people quarantined on the ship until at least Feb. 19.

“They just have to get off that ship. End of story.”

As of Wednesday, 32 of the Americans have confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to a letter the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo sent to passengers, citing information from Japan’s Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare.

“We are aware of 428 U.S. citizens that were on board the ship,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We are aware of reports that multiple U.S. passengers have tested positive for coronavirus, and have been transported to local hospitals for treatment. Due to privacy considerations we cannot comment on specific cases.”

Wulfmeier said she’s urging her sister to get in touch with representatives in Congress to press them to call for the emergency evacuation of U.S. citizens on board.

“I know contacting the president of the United States sounds a bit extreme. However, you know, it’s not that far-fetched, given the circumstances,” she said.

The virus, which can cause pneumonia-like symptoms, including cough, fever and trouble breathing that can range from mild to severe, has killed at least 1,369 people, mostly in China. And more than 60,000 people two dozen countries have been confirmed to have it.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday evening that 14 people have COVID-19.

The newest case is in a person under a federal quarantine order after returning to the U.S. on a State Department-chartered flight that arrived on February 7, according to the CDC.

More than 600 people who returned to the U.S. on charted flights from Wuhan remain under federal quarantine; 195 people were discharged Tuesday after completing a 14-day quarantine.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., is closely monitoring the situation on the Diamond Princess and said members of Congress got two coronavirus updates Wednesday from various agencies.

“The State Department, CDC, HHS (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) are very focused on the Americans that are on the cruise ship,” she told the Free Press on Wednesday. “They have sent someone from the CDC that is working with the government of Japan. … There are doctors. Actually, a number of the Americans on board are physicians. Some of them are friends of members of Congress. The State Department and CDC have assured us that they’re very focused on it and are trying to come up with a solution.

“We’ve got a strong task force looking at all the issues related to this.”

It’s been two days since Wulfmeier has been in contact with her sister, which is difficult because of the 14-hour time difference. But earlier this week, she said LaRouche was still doing well, as was LaRouche’s roommate, a friend from Florida.

“I’m confident she and her roommate are healthy,” Wulfmeier said. “They have reported no signs of anything.”

And although some of the passengers have been allowed to leave their cabins for short periods of time to get fresh air on the deck, Wulfmeier said LaRouche has opted to stay inside her room.

“She’s staying in the cabin the entire time,” Wulfmeier said. “She doesn’t want to risk that. … They have not opted to go out on that deck with the others.”

The ship’s crew is providing meals and bottled water to passengers in their rooms, along with free access to WiFi and telephone calls, games, puzzles, TV programming and movies.

“Although we are facing many limitations and challenges, we are doing our best to deliver the ship’s most critical needs,” said Rai Caluori, executive vice president of Princess Cruises in a statement. “We are also working to provide as much care and comfort as we can to everyone onboard. We hope these gestures will lift the spirits of those onboard in this difficult time.”

LaRouche traveled with a friend Jan. 17 for a nearly three-week trip to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam, Wulfmeier said.

On Feb. 4, the day LaRouche was supposed to come home to Michigan, passengers were notified that they couldn’t leave the Diamond Princess because Japanese authorities needed to check the health status of the 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew.

The reason: A passenger who got off the ship Jan. 25 in Hong Kong tested positive for the COVID-19, according to a Princess Cruises news release. Instead, the ship would have to remain anchored near Yokohama.

The State Department did not comment when the Free Press asked about whether efforts were underway to evacuate the Americans on the ship.

However, a spokesperson said once the 14-day quarantine period is up Feb. 19, passengers “will be permitted to depart Japan on commercial flights, which are readily available, and will not be subject to additional quarantine upon return to the United States.”

The CDC is also working with Japanese health authorities to prevent the spread of the disease on the ship, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, during a news conference Wednesday.

“Obviously, it’s a high priority” to ensure those who are sick are getting proper care and to stop the spread of the virus, she said. “We want to protect their health, and we’re working closely, again, through the embassy, on thinking through what the right next steps are, and when there’s more information, we will clearly make that available as quickly as possible.”

But for Wulfmeier, that’s not enough.

“We need to get our American government on this and save the Americans on that ship,” she said. “And that’s no joke. It’s not melodrama. It’s not overreacting. This has gotten really serious in my opinion.”

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