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An additional 44 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed on the Diamond Princess, the Japanese health minister announced on Thursday. This includes 43 passengers and 1 crew member.

Elderly people made up the large majority of those newly infected with the virus, with 40 of the 44 being 70 or older, the Japan Times reported.

This brings the total of cases linked to the ship to 219, with just six days to go in the 14-day quarantine ending February 19.

This week, 65 new cases of coronavirus infection had been confirmed aboard the Diamond Princess on Monday and 40 on Wednesday morning.

The ministry says that as of Thursday, 713 people have had virus tests aboard the ship.

Of the 219 cases, there are 206 passengers, 12 are crew members and one Japanese quarantine officer. The Australian Department of Health confirms that there are 15 Australian passengers have tested positive for coronavirus, including a 21-year-old Melbourne woman. There are 225 Australian passengers and 3 Australian crew are on board.

“My granddaughter Bianca who is 21-years-old tested positive and now she’s in isolation in the hospital and my three other family members are all in isolation wards over there,” he told 3AW radio on Wednesday.

Elderly passengers will be allowed to leave

The Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato also confirmed on Thursday that elderly passengers staying in a cabin without a balcony, as well as those with chronic illnesses, will be allowed to leave the ship if they tested negative for the virus.

People who have tested negative for the virus and are over 80 years old, or have a non-virus medical condition requiring attention, will be allowed to leave the ship and move to a government medical facility as early as Friday if they wish, says Mr Kato. He did not give a timeline for that process.

Masahiro Kami, head of the nonprofit Medical Governance Research Institute, said that elderly people with chronic illnesses could suffer rapid aggravations of their health conditions due to stress if confined to their cramped cabins.

As of last Wednesday, about 80 percent of the 2,666 passengers were age 60 or older, with 215 in their 80s and 11 in their 90s. There are approximately half the guests onboard from Japan and there is also 1,045 crew on board.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato also said on Wednesday: “At this point, we have confirmed that four people, among those who are hospitalised, are in a serious condition, either on a ventilator or in an intensive care unit.”

Those four people have pre-existing conditions and three of them Japanese citizens.

Japanese health ministry official Masami Sakoi also said, “We do not consider the air conditioning system as the cause of spreading infections,” he said.

The cabins on the Diamond Princess have separate air conditioning systems, so guests aren’t sharing the same air, he said.

The government said on Monday that they are considering testing all passengers and crew on board for coronavirus, according to the health minister Katsunobu Kato, as reported in the Japan Times.

But the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga countered that statement saying it will be difficult to test everyone on the ship.

“We will prioritize people with symptoms, such as high fever. Older people will also be given priority,” said Mr Suga.

Possible quarantine extension

A WHO situation report states: “Close contacts of the infected passengers are asked to remain in quarantine for 14 days from last contact with a confirmed case. Thus, the quarantine period will be extended beyond the 19 February as appropriate only for close contacts of newly confirmed cases.”

So if a passenger has had contact with one of the new cases, the clock starts again.

However, Princess Cruises have clarified in a statement that the quarantine end date remains at February 19, unless there are any unforeseen developments.

“We are following guidance from the Japan Ministry of Health on plans for disembarkation protocols to provide medical care for these new cases.

“Since it is early in the quarantine period of 14-days, it was not unexpected that additional cases would be reported involving individuals who were exposed prior to the start of the quarantine,” says Princess Cruises in the statement.

“The Japan Ministry of Health has been the lead public health authority defining the testing protocols for all guests and crew on Diamond Princess. Questions on the timeline, test results and reporting protocols should be directed to them. The quarantine end date remains at February 19, unless there are any unforeseen developments.

“Additional information will be shared as soon as it is made available to use by the Ministry of Health.”

Compensation for guests

Meanwhile, Princess Cruises has announced that passsengers on the Diamond Princess will be receiving a full refund for their cruise and a future cruise credit.

“Because of the extraordinary circumstances onboard Diamond Princess, Princess Cruises will refund the full cruise fare for all guests including air travel, hotel, ground transportation, pre-paid shore excursions, gratuities and other items. In addition, guests will not be charged for any onboard incidental charges during the additional time onboard,” says the line in a statement.

“Princess Cruises will also provide guests with a future cruise credit equal to the cruise fare paid for the voyage which ended on February 4.

“Princess Cruises also confirmed that although all gratuities will be refunded back to guests the company will ensure crew members receive their designated gratuities for the work performed.

“Guests have been provided a letter delivered to their stateroom with details on how to process this refund.”

The credit may be applied to any future Princess cruise booked by February i28, 2021 or any existing booking not yet paid in full and is non-refundable and non-transferable, according to a letter to a guest on board.

The guests onboard were originally booked to sail a 14-day Yokohama roundtrip itinerary, departing on January 20 and scheduled to return on February 4.